Remembrance Of Sites Past

Once upon a time on the web, novelty abounded. And to be honest, it didn't take much to impress somebody. In the mid-'90s thousands of surfers were transfixed by the sight (site?) of a coffee machine in a faculty room at Cambridge University--word had seeped out that a camera had been set up to monitor the pot and folks all over the world checked it out daily on their newly downloaded Mosaic browsers. Simply because it was there. Now you can relive those unjaded days--and browse the entire history of the amazing World Wide Web--with the Wayback Machine (archive.org), drawing on the world's biggest database, the Internet Archive.

Named after the time-traveling device invented by the canine cartoon character Mr. Peabody of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" fame, Wayback is the brainchild of Brewster Kahle, 41, a legendary computer scientist whose former creations include WAIS and Alexa (bought respectively by AOL and Amazon, making him rich). In 1996 Kahle, inspired by the great Library of Alexandria, unleashed an army of software "spiders" to seek out and copy all of the Web, at least the part of it that was open without cost to visitors. The spiders were thorough, and the archive, which lives inside 300 computers at Kahle's offices near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, now consists of 10 billion pages, about 100 terabytes' worth of information. This is equivalent to the Library of Congress times five.

It's history on a grand scale--and a humble scale, too. "The Web is the people's medium," says Kahle. "It's the publisher who won't turn you down. We have 5 million to 15 million people's individual voices."

The Wayback Machine also has the full story of the 2000 presidential election, Amazon.com when it was barely a virtual storefront, the online mutterings of the Heaven's Gate suicide cult and fan pages of countless defunct bands you have never heard of. "It's fun to surf the past," says Kahle. More seriously, "we hope that this will be a mainstay in history, anthropology and economics."

Opened to the public barely a week ago, the Wayback Machine has already drawn close to a million visitors, overwhelming Kahle's servers. "We way underestimated the interest," he says. Kahle, of all people, should have realized what the Cambridge coffee people learned long ago: surfers flock to cool sites.