In 1991 a team of programmers at the University of Minnesota created the first popular means of using the internet. They called it “Gopher:” a nod to both the slang “go-fer,” meaning to fetch something, and the Golden Gopher mascot. Gopher’s client-server protocol allowed users to explore and view online content: a “web browser” before the “web.” It became the software of the internet when the medium was still in its infancy as a public information resource. Gopher dominated for a few crucial years before the World Wide Web, and during that time it helped define what the internet was and what it was for.
The software worked beautifully but was initially rejected by a University of Minnesota committee because it didn’t suit their vision for the project. In response, the Gopher team released the program for free using File-Transfer Protocol: the most popular way to share software at the time. The strategy worked. Programmer Robert Alberti later recalled:
“[Gopher] was the first viral software. All these people started calling the [University of Minnesota] and pestering the president and other administrators, saying, ‘This Gopher thing is great, when are you going to release a new version?’ And the administrators said, ‘What are you talking about?”
Shortly thereafter, the University gave in to popular demand and Gopher was officially approved for distribution.
Gopher was crucial to the popularization of the internet. When it was introduced the medium was primarily seen as an esoteric tool for institutions and hobbyists. Gopher changed that by making online content more approachable and accessible. McCahill explained:
“People were looking to expand the internet beyond physicist’s stuff. Gopher could do that. It was simple to use, it could network lots and lots of computers. It gave people a reason to say, hey, this internet is good.”
Gopher struck a chord and quickly spread to hundreds of servers across the country. As described by an article in 1994:
“Millions of Internet citizens use Gopher to burrow into electronic libraries on every continent to find documents, pictures, animations, sounds, and video clips” (Deyo).
Annual Gopher conferences were attended by representatives from companies like Apple, IBM, Microsoft, and the World Bank. At the peak of its popularity there were 6,958 Gopher servers in operation: two and half times its closest competitor. When Tim Berners-Lee released the World Wide Web to the public, it spread through file sharing on Gopher.