Wayback Machine

You can review history, you can relive history, you can recreate history and you can even rewrite history. Now, thanks to the Internet Archive, you can also re-enter history. Welcome to the Wayback Machine.

Launched in October, the Wayback Machine is the public's access point to contents of the Internet Archive, which has been cataloguing webpages since 1996, and has given itself the goal of preserving -- among other things -- the "entire publicly available web." While that cataloguing was fairly spotty in the early days of the operation, the Archive's work has become much more comprehensive in the last few years, and the collection currently holds over 10 billion pages, representing 100 terabytes of electronic history. (That's roughly equivalent to 100,000 complete editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica.) This makes the Internet Archive the largest known database in the world - and it's growing at a rate 12 terabytes per month.

Much of the Wayback Machine's recent press coverage has been related to the site's "September 11" archive (which by itself contains more than 5 terabytes of preserved webpages, including news and memorial sites, tributes and survivor registries). This, and three other Special Collections on the Wayback's home page (United States Government, Election 2000, and Web Pioneers) serve both to draw visitors into the collection and illustrate the practical and recreational possibilities of the site.

The last of these features, Web Pioneers, highlights sites that helped shape the Web, from familiar destinations like Yahoo, The Internet Movie Database, and NASA, to less famous, but still pivotal, sites such as the Trojan Room Coffee Machine - home of the world's first Web Cam (set up to save engineers wasted trips to an empty coffee pot). For each of these sites, the Wayback Machine offers a thumbnail image of the earliest page captured as well as a link to the entire archived collection for that page.

When you're ready to move beyond these four spotlight themes, the Wayback Machine also has a 'keyword' search engine (though in this case, the keyword is a desired site's URL) which will allow you to review the evolution of all of your favourite websites - including this fine publication. And while the Archive doesn't include absolutely every page posted since 1996, you'll be hard pressed to find a site they haven't captured. (I personally tried to stump the Wayback with the address of a page that was nothing more than an online placeholder for a site, planned by a friend, but in the end never launched - and the archive found it.) Of course, this also means that all those thousands --or millions-- of web pages devoted to pets, personal diaries, and Battlestar Gallactica trivia have also been preserved for posterity. Our sympathies to posterity.

If you really feel like immersing yourself into a particular moment in time, having found a page, it's also frequently possible to surf from that page - using the vintage page's links to move to the also-archived vintage destinations. This doesn't work in all cases, due to the unevenness of the early collection, limitations of the web crawlers that gather the pages, and sites that simply don't want to be archived, (one can anticipate copyright complications in the Archive's future) but it's an easy way to immediately place a site into its period- or design-related context.

Even while exploring the Archive, the experience takes a bit of getting used to. One of the accepted truths about the World Wide Web has always been its lack of permanence. Now, not only is there a 'first-person,' 'first-draft' record of the world's history and culture, but there are also billions of 'concrete' illustrations of how far web design and web capabilities have come in just five years. (Have a look at Amazon.com, then and now, for a particularly striking example.)

Downsides include the aforementioned holes in the collection, (but seriously, we're talking about archiving the World Wide Web here) and occasional interruptions in service. The Wayback Machine's popularity has vastly outstripped the Internet Archive's expectations, and as a result, requests can periodically overwhelm the servers' capacity. More servers are being added, but for the moment, access will be subject to delay. Still, it's a pretty safe bet that Mr. Peabody would have been impressed.

The Internet Archive's Wayback Machine can be found at http://web.archive.org/.

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And just in case you'd like to view these vintage pages in a vintage browser, Deja Vu: (re-)creating web history provides online emulations of those earlier applications - so you can see what a vintage (or current) site would look like through such 'historic' browsers as, Mosaic, Lynx, and early versions of Navigator and Explorer.

Deja Vu is at http://www.dejavu.org/.

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