Monday, September 20, 2010

Ode to the Internet Archive

What came to my mind recently when thinking about internet services that really help me was the Internet Archive, known by some also as the WayBack-Machine.

As I've told you, my hobby is not only to collect old or ancient hardware, but also to find as much information as possible about it. While doing this, I have often experienced a dead end - a site that has been taken out of the internet's "ether" some years ago and is not in Google cache. What can you do if that is the only site promising info about important but for most long forgotten hardware?

This is where the Internet Archive takes over. The people running this archive collect and store pages of the World Wide Web with their regular "web crawls": Nearly every site on the net gets picked up and at least its text is saved in the archive. The user then has the possibility to enter a URL and select which saved version of the page he would like to access. This is possible with pages that still exist (to see earlier versions) and e.g. pages that have been deleted over 5 years ago.

A perfect example of how useful the archive can be is the following site I once recovered when researching about the Xerox PARC Alto computer:

http://web.archive.org/web/20030807044816/www.ainotl.com/alto.html

This is for me one of the most interesting computers ever built. It featured a Letter-format black and white screen, a graphical operating system with icons and WYSIWYG functions and programs controlled by a mouse and booted from a removable hard disk drive… And, last but not least, an ethernet connection to other Alto computers. Sounds like nothing unusual? Well, this was 1972, still before the microprocessor was available. The manufacturing costs of this computer were over 50,000$ back then. Punch that into an inflation calculator and then compare it with the manufacturing cost of the PCs everybody and his uncle are making today…!

Anyway, a little more history about why this computer is so great: One of the people that enjoyed a tour through the Xerox PARC (the Palo Alto Research Center, also what gave the Alto his name) was nobody else than THE Steve Jobs. He was so fascinated about HALF of the features (it is said that he overlooked the ethernet connections), that he decided to build a computer like this himself. More than ten years later, in 1983, the Apple LISA was ready. The breakthrough, though, was made with the Apple Macintosh one year later.

To sum it up, it took more than TEN years to have something comparable to the Xerox Alto for home use (the Alto was given away to universities but never actually sold, the successor that was sold was immensely expensive).

Rumor has it, that a certain Bill Gates was fascinated by the Macintosh and also thought to himself "Well, I could do something like that myself", and so the line of copiers went on… But that's another story.

So why am I telling you this? The site I recovered claims that the ONLY REMAINING Alto I is in their possession. It is the ONLY resource so far where I could find such detailed information and pictures… All thanks to the Internet Archive.

This is why, like I find the Alto one of the most interesting computers, I find the Internet Archive one of the most interesting resources on the World Wide Web. It is definitely a site that's got its place on my "list of sites to donate for", because these guys are doing an enormous amount of work to make sure that our (sub)culture(s) is/are preserved forever.

If you reach a dead end in the future, why not give it a try at www.archive.org

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