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Meet the 'father of the search engine’

Google, which dominates the global search market, now processes more than 100 billion search requests every month.

Google, which dominates the global search market, now processes more than 100 billion search requests every month.

Published Sep 10, 2013


London - Jonathon Fletcher does not look back. For the past two decades the unassuming Yorkshireman has worked in the financial services industry in Asia, raising his family and only occasionally telling friends and colleagues of his extraordinary invention that helped revolutionise the world.

Back in the early 1990s, five years before Larry Page and Sergey Brin independently created Google on a sun-drenched California campus, Mr Fletcher was a hard-up graduate student perfecting, in the chillier climes of a Stirling University computer laboratory, what is now seen as the first recognisable web-search engine.

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But a shortage of funding, a lack of available disk space and a job offer in Tokyo saw him abandon his creation JumpStation and the vast riches it might have brought.

Speaking from Hong Kong in the week that Google - a company now valued at $400bn - celebrated its 15th birthday, Mr Fletcher is remarkably relaxed about the hand that fate has dealt him.

“Looking back is a little bit artificial; you do things in the present or looking forward,” the 43-year-old says. “Looking back - knowing what I know about the search-engine industry - I guess you could say it would have been nice if things had turned out differently. But at the time I just did what I wanted to do and it was the right thing at the time. That is how things work out.”

The father of two, who got his first ZX81 computer as a schoolboy in Scarborough in 1981, is being hailed as the father of the search engine for his innovative webcrawler.

The device - still at the heart of Google, Bing and Yahoo! - is able to sift through webpages and create an effective index, making it possible to find things among the ever-growing avalanche of data in cyberspace.

Back in 1993, however, the web was still the preserve of the US security services and a few plugged-in academics - few could foresee the digital revolution that lay ahead.

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Mr Fletcher had graduated with a first class degree in computing from Stirling and, returning to Scotland after a “lazy summer”, he was expecting to continue his studies doing a PhD in 3D graphics at Glasgow University. But an unexpected cut to his funding put an end to his hopes of a doctorate and meant he had to take a job as a lab technician in Stirling's technology department.

While he worked there he tried to resolve the problem of how to keep abreast of all the new things emerging on the nascent web.

From September until December he spent his evenings and weekends when not at work toiling on the webcrawler, which could scan websites and index them according to aspects of their text.

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“I don't know whether I was slightly too early or slightly under-resourced. I'm not entirely sure,” he says of his decision to abandon JumpStation, although he attaches no blame to his old university, where he is remembered as a “tremendously dedicated student”, for its failure to back him financially.

“It was understandable. If I had been a bit pushier or more persistent in trying to demonstrate the value of the JumpStation, perhaps things would have worked out differently. But no one else was doing this so it was hard for others to understand the value of it. I am very proud of my university,” he adds.

Mr Fletcher says he does not lie awake at night dreaming of the billions he might have made. “My parents are proud of me and my wife and children are proud of me. It is enough.”

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Of the intervening decades he says: “It has been OK. It has been an interesting path, but it has been OK. I didn't have a crystal ball at the time to see any other way forward, so I did what I thought was the right thing at the time and this is how it has worked out. How can I complain?”



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