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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

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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?”

NOT FOR PROFIT INVENTORS WHO LOST OUT

TREVOR BAYLIS

The 76-year-old inventor of the wind-up radio recently said he could not afford to live in his London home. Mr Baylis lost control of the product and profits when the company he originally went into business with, tweaked the radio's design in the early 1990s. “I know that at least I've left my mark,” said Baylis.

SIR CHRISTOPHER COCKERELL

The inventor of the modern hovercraft first trialled his idea with a vacuum cleaner and tin cans to test his theories. His first craft, which crossed the channel between Calais and Dover in 1959, prompted thousands of such vehicles across the world. But Sir Christopher was forced to fight for years to receive any cash from the National Research Development Corporation.

STEVEN SASSON

The New Yorker was a junior Kodak engineer in 1974 when his supervisor gave him a “small, open-ended project” to come up with a self-contained camera. It prompted Sasson to build the first digital camera with no moving parts – and more importantly, no film. Now retired, Sasson was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2010.

SIR TIM BERNERS-LEE

In the ultimate sacrifice, the creator of the World Wide Web made it freely available while working at the European research lab at Cern in 1989. He described the internet as a basic “human right”.

DAISUKE INOUE

The Japanese businessman made money from playing the drums in a backing band in Osaka while customers in a bar were invited to sing. Once, in 1971, he could not make a gig and instead put the backing music on tape and later made 11 karaoke (empty orchestra) machines which he leased. Crucially, in a decision said to have cost him £100m, he failed to patent his invention. “When I see the happy faces of people singing karaoke, I'm delighted,” he has said. - The Independent

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