Links We Like: the History of the Gopher Protocol, the Trackball, & the Super Soaker


This week’s Links We Like dig into the history of the internet Gopher protocol, reveal the secrets of the arcade trackball, and cool off with the history of the Super Soaker.

If you’ve stumbled onto an interesting link or two, make sure to share them in the comments below, or in our forum. We’re always on the hunt for new links to get lost in. Have a great weekend! ヽ(⌐■_■)ノ♪♬

Rise and Fall of the Gopher Protocol

The core Internet Gopher team

The core Internet Gopher team

In the late 1980s and early 90s, browsing the internet was a far different experience than today. File Transfer Protocol (FTP) ruled the wires. It allowed a client computer to connect to a server and download a particular file or two, but that’s about it. No hyperlinks. No searching. Just a remote directory structure. And certainly not an exciting, robust browsing experience. Even Tim Berners-Lee’s Hyper-Text Transport Protocol (HTTP), what would later in the decade become the foundational protocol for the world wide web and the online experience we know now, was an upstart that only a few users.

Working at the University of Minnesota, Mark McCahill, Farhad Anklesaria, Paul Lindner, Daniel Torrey, and Bob Alberti created the Gopher protocol. It expanded the potential of the internet by making it easier to use, share documents, and even search for content by letting computers interact in a new way and creating a more structured hierarchy of data.

Gopher quickly became popular, and in 1992 while attending a conference, McCahill and Anklesaria were surprised just how many of the event attendees were actively using their creation. In fact, Gopher was so popular that Berners-Lee used it to announce his creation of HTTP to the world. Gopher was simply the best way to get the news out at the time.

Surfing the internet with Gopher

Surfing the internet with Gopher

But by the spring of 1994, Gopher was eclipsed by Berners-Lee’s HTTP and infighting at the University of Minnesota caused additional setbacks for the project. The University wanted to charge certain high-volume users of the Gopher protocol, a move completely antithetical to what the Gopher team believed in. It was a sign of the beginning of the end.

Today, Gopher has been all but abaddoned, but if you want to try it out, browse over to Overbite for the scoop. And for the full story of Gopher, make sure you read Tim Gihring’s entire account of the rise and fall.

The Secret History of the Arcade Trackball

The DATAR trackball used a 5" blowing ball design

The DATAR trackball used a 5″ blowing ball design

Blackberry users and Golden Tee players know all about the trackball, but there’s a surprising history to the input device that even they might not know. In The Secret History of the Arcade Trackball, the Arcade Blog traces the origins of the device from military creation to common arcade controller.

Originally invented by Ralph Benjamin while working on a project for the British Royal Navy Scientific Service, manufacturing was ulitimately scrapped in favor of a joystick design.

In 1952, Tom Cranston, Fred Longstaff and Kenyon Taylor revived the design for the battlefield computer DATAR they were building for the Royal Canadian Navy. Unlike the metal prototype of the British, the Canadian design used a 5-pin bowling ball which average about 5″ in diameter.

Essentially, DATAR was a system that allowed a fleet of ships to have a full view of the battlefield. The system took the input of ships positions, plotted them, and let other ships in the fleet to have access to this information. One ship was equipped with the main DATAR computer, which communicated the information over radio to ships with DATAR terminals, and each terminal operators could navigate the battlefield using a trackball input. For more on that system, read this exhaustive article or this shorter one.

It wasn’t until Atari’s Football that trackballs made the transition from the military to the arcade, though it’s a bit murky how that exactly happened. While trackballs are not as popular as they once were, they are particularly well suited for gaming owing to their precision of input. Make sure to read the full story on Arcade Blogger and let us know what your favorite trackball game is.

The Man Who Invented the Super Soaker

Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker

Lonnie Johnson with his invention, the Super Soaker

Growing up in the hot, muggy summers of Michigan, my trusty Super Soaker 50 and I took part in a lot water fights over the years. So it was with great delight to find that the BBC News had profiled Lonnie Johnson, the father of the Super Soaker.

Johnson grew up in Mobile, Alabama during the 1960s. At an early age he had an affinity to tinker with electronics and mechanical devices. He hacked together a go-kart with friends, and in high school Johnson built a propane powered robot named Linex that took first place in the school science fair.

After graduating from Tuskegee University, Johnson worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and then for NASA. In 1982, Johnson had the idea for a super water gun and made a few prototypes by milling out plastic stock. After a bit of testing, he gave his creation to his 7-year old daughter use in a water fight with friends. She was untouchable. Due to Johnson’s pressurised squirt gun, other kids simply couldn’t extrude water as far as she could.

Johnson spent 7-years trying to manufacture his water pistol, even filed a few patents, but was met with mostly frustrations. That changed in 1989 at the American International Toy Fair in New York when he ran into the Vice President of the Larami toy company, Al Davis. Though that encounter didn’t immediately pan out, two years later in the summer of 1991, he and Davis had 20 million squirt guns!

Check out the full story on the BBC.


Have a great weekend! Share your favorite Super Soaker memory, as well as any cool links you stumble on in the forums or comments below. And if you’re working on any cool C.H.I.P. or PocketC.H.I.P. projects, make sure to tweet us about it!

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True story: my uncle is a professional pianist and in the 90s was an avid Atari TOS/MiNT user, claimed they had the best audio support at the time, and notably provided support for his giant trackball that he controlled with… his feet. Being a pianist, he needed his hands free for his musical keyboards, and would manipulate computer data – in real-time! – with his toes and trackball. Weirdest thing I ever saw.

Thanks for the link to Floodgap’s Gopherspace and Overbite. I’m actually rigging up something with a Pocket CHIP to get old 8-bit computers onto Gopherspace, which for systems of that vintage would be exceptionally appropriate. I’ll post that up when it’s working (right now I have the downlink to the computer working through the joystick port and four of the GPIO pins, but the uplink is requiring a bit more circuit work).

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