Gopher (protocol)

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The Gopher protocol is a TCP/IP Application layer protocol designed for distributing, searching, and retrieving documents over the Internet, and was a predecessor, and later, an alternative to the World Wide Web. The protocol offers some features not natively supported by the Web and imposes a much stronger hierarchy on information stored on it. Its text menu interface is well-suited to computing environments that rely heavily on remote computer terminals, common in universities at the time of its creation in 1991 until 1993.[1]



The original Gopher system was released in late spring of 1991 by Mark McCahill, Farhad Anklesaria, Michael Guevara de Jesus, Paul Lindner, Daniel Torrey, Bob Alberti, and Terry Nickman of the University of Minnesota. Its central goals were:

  • A file-like hierarchical arrangement that would be familiar to users
  • A simple syntax
  • A system that can be created quickly and inexpensively
  • Extending the file system metaphor to include things like searches

The source of the name "Gopher" is claimed to be threefold:

  1. Users instruct it to "go for" information
  2. It does so through a web of menu items analogous to gopher holes
  3. The sports teams of the University of Minnesota are the Golden Gophers

Gopher combines document hierarchies with collections of services, including WAIS, the Archie and Veronica search engines, and gateways to other information systems such as ftp and Usenet.

The general interest in Campus-Wide Information Systems (CWISs)[2] in higher education at the time, and the ease with which a Gopher server could be set up to create an instant CWIS with links to other sites' online directories and resources were the factors contributing to Gopher's rapid adoption. By 1992, the standard method of locating someone's e-mail address was to find their organization's CCSO nameserver entry in Gopher, and query the nameserver.[3]

The exponential scaling of utility in social networked systems (Reed's law) seen in Gopher, and then the Web, is a common feature of networked hypermedia systems with distributed authoring. In 1993–1994, Web pages commonly contained large numbers of links to Gopher-delivered resources, as the Web continued Gopher's embrace and extend tradition of providing gateways to other services.[citation needed]


The World Wide Web was in its infancy in 1991, and Gopher services quickly became established. By the late 1990s, Gopher had largely ceased expanding. Several factors contributed to Gopher's stagnation:

  • In February 1993, the University of Minnesota announced that it would charge licensing fees for the use of its implementation of the Gopher server.[4] As a consequence of this some users suspected that a licensing fee would also be charged for independent implementations.[5][6] In contrast, no such limitation has yet been imposed on the World Wide Web. The University of Minnesota eventually re-licensed its Gopher software under the GNU GPL.[7]
  • Gopher Client functionality was quickly duplicated by early Web browsers, such as Mosaic. Furthermore, the user friendliness of the World Wide Web, with its integration of text and graphics, made Gopher less appealing.
  • Gopher has an inflexible structure when compared to the free-form HTML of the Web. With Gopher, every document has a defined format and type, and the typical user must navigate through a single server-defined menu system to get to a particular document.

Availability of Gopher today

Recently, there have been attempts to revive the use of Gopher. One such attempt is the Overbite project[8], a Firefox extension that adds better support for the protocol to Firefox.

As of 2008, there are approximately 125 gopher servers indexed by Veronica-2,[9] a slow growth from 2007 when there were fewer than 100.[10] Many of them are owned by universities in various parts of the world. Most of them are neglected and rarely updated except for the ones run by enthusiasts of the protocol. A handful of new servers are set up every year by hobbyists — 30 have been set up and added to Floodgap's list since 1999[11] and possibly some more that haven't been added. Due to the simplicity of the Gopher protocol, setting up new servers or adding Gopher support to browsers is often done in a tongue-in-cheek way, principally on April Fools' Day[12][13]

Some have suggested that the bandwidth-sparing simple interface of Gopher would be a good match for mobile phones and Personal digital assistants (PDAs),[14] but so far, Wireless Markup Language (WML)/Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), DoCoMo i-mode, XHTML Basic or other adaptations of HTML and XML, have proved more popular. The PyGopherd server, however, provides a built-in WML front-end to Gopher sites served with it.

Gopher support in Web browsers

File:Firefox Gopher Directory Listing.png
Mozilla Firefox 3.7 displaying the top-level menu of the Floodgap gopher server
Browser Currently Supported Supported from Supported until Notes
Internet Explorer No 1 6.0 RTM Re-enable with registry patch[15]. Always uses port 70.
Template:Rh2 | Internet Explorer for Mac No 5.0 PowerPC-only
Mozilla Firefox Yes 0 Always uses port 70. (May however be dropped from Firefox from version 4.0 onwards due to security concerns.[16])
SeaMonkey Yes 1.0
Camino Yes 1.0
OmniWeb Yes 5.9.2 Current First WebKit Browser to support Gopher[17][18]
Epiphany Yes
Galeon Yes
Konqueror Plugin kio_gopher
K-Meleon Yes
Lynx Yes Complete support
ELinks Beta Build option
Safari No
Opera No Opera 9.0 includes a proxy capability
Google Chrome No

Gopher support was disabled in Internet Explorer versions 5.* and 6 for Windows in June 2002 by a patch meant to fix a security vulnerability in the browser's Gopher protocol handler; however, it can be re-enabled by editing the Windows registry. In Internet Explorer 7, Gopher support was removed on the WinINET level.[19]

Other browsers, including Mozilla Application Suite (deprecated), still support the protocol, but incompletely—the most obvious deficiency is that they cannot display the informational text found on many Gopher menus.

Gopher clients

Gopher was at its height of popularity during a time when there were still many equally competing computer architectures and operating systems. As such, there are several Gopher Clients available for Acorn RISC OS, AmigaOS, Atari MiNT, CMS, DOS, MacOS 7x, MVS, NeXT, OS/2 Warp, most UNIX-like operating systems, VMS, Windows 3x, and Windows 9x. GopherVR was a client designed for 3D visualization, and there is even a Gopher Client MOO object. The majority of these clients are hard coded to work on Port 70.

A copy of every known Gopher Client is permanently archived on the HAL3000 Gopher Server. The Clients may be freely downloaded from the HTTP link:

Gopher to HTTP gateways

Users of Web browsers that have incomplete or no support for Gopher[20] can access content on Gopher servers via a server gateway that converts Gopher menus into HTML. GN and PyGopherd are two examples of Gopher server software that have built-in Gopher to HTTP interfaces. An active example of such a dual protocol server is Hal3000. Another is Floodgap. By default any Squid cache proxy server will act as a Gopher to HTTP gateway.

Gopher characteristics

Gopher functions and appears much like a mountable read-only global network file system (and software, such as gopherfs, is available that can actually mount a Gopher server as a FUSE resource). At a minimum, whatever a person can do with data files on a CD-ROM, they can do on Gopher.

A Gopher system consists of a series of hierarchical hyperlinkable menus. The choice of menu items and titles is controlled by the administrator of the server.

File:Floodgap gopher top menu.PNG
The top level menu of a Gopher server. Selecting the "Fun and Games" menu item...
File:Floodgap gopher fun menu.PNG
... takes the user to the "Fun and Games" menu.

File:Floodgap gopher servers menu.PNG
A Gopher menu listing other accessible servers.
File:Umn gopher dir.png
Gopher menu from a terminal client.

Similar to a file on a Web server, a file on a Gopher server can be linked to as a menu item from any other Gopher server. Many servers take advantage of this inter-server linking to provide a directory of other servers that the user can access.

Technical details


The Gopher protocol was first described in INFORMATIONAL RFC 1436. IANA has assigned TCP port 70 to the Gopher protocol.

The gopher protocol is extremely simple in its conception, making it possible to browse without using a client. A standard gopher Telnet session may therefore appear as follows:

telnet 70
Connected to
Escape character is '^]'.
1CIA World Factbook     /Archives/mirrors/ 70
0Jargon 4.2.0   /Reference/Jargon 4.2.0 70      +
1Online Libraries       /Reference/Online Libraries 70     +
1RFCs: Internet Standards       /Computers/Standards and Specs/RFC 70
1U.S. Gazetteer /Reference/U.S. Gazetteer 70      +
iThis file contains information on United States        fake    (NULL)  0
icities, counties, and geographical areas.  It has      fake    (NULL)  0
ilatitude/longitude, population, land and water area,   fake    (NULL)  0
iand ZIP codes. fake    (NULL)  0
i       fake    (NULL)  0
iTo search for a city, enter the city's name.  To search        fake    (NULL) 0
ifor a county, use the name plus County -- for instance,        fake    (NULL) 0
iDallas County. fake    (NULL)  0
Connection closed by foreign host.

Here, the client has established a TCP connection with the server, on Port 70, the standard gopher port. The client then sends "/Reference" followed by a carriage return followed by a line feed (a "CR + LF" sequence). This is the item selector, which identifies the document to be retrieved. If the item selector were an empty line, the default directory will be selected. The server then replies with the requested item and closes the connection. According to the protocol, before the connection is closed, the server should send a full-stop on a line by itself. However, as is the case here, not all servers conform to this part of the protocol and the server may close the connection without returning the final full-stop.

In this example, the item sent back is a directory, consisting of a sequence of lines, each of which describes an item that can be retrieved. Most clients will display these as hypertext links, and so allow the user to navigate through the gopherspace by following the links.

All lines in a directory listing are ended with "CR + LF" and consist of five fields: Type (see below), User_Name (i.e. the description text to display), Selector (i.e. a file-system pathname), Host (i.e. the domain name of the server on which the item resides), and Port (i.e. the port number used by that server). The Type and User_Name fields are joined without a space; while the other fields are separated by tabs.

Because of the simplicity of the Gopher protocol, in the Windows or UNIX command-line (if you have netcat), you can easily download files from gopher using a command like the following:

echo jacks/jack.exe | nc 70 > jack.exe

Gopher File-Types

File-types are described in gopher menus by a single number or (case specific) letter. Every client must understand file-types 0 and 1. All known clients understand file-types 0 through 9, g, and s; while all but the very oldest also understand file-types h and i.

A list of additional file-type definitions has continued to evolve over time, with some clients supporting them and others not. As such, many servers assign the generic 9 to every binary file, hoping that the client's computer will be able to correctly process the file.

URL links

Historically, to create a link to a Web server, "GET /" was used as the file to simulate an HTTP client request. John Goerzen created an addition [21] to the Gopher protocol, commonly referred to as "URL links", that allows links to any protocol that supports URLs. For example, to create a link to, the item type is "h", the description is arbitrary, the item selector is "URL:", and the domain and port are that of the originating Gopher server. For clients that do not support URL links, the server creates an HTML redirection page.

Related technology

The master Gopherspace search engine is Veronica. Veronica offers a keyword search of all the public Internet Gopher server menu titles. A Veronica search produces a menu of Gopher items, each of which is a direct pointer to a Gopher data source.

Example of the Veronica Search Engine:


Individual Gopher servers often use a localized Search Engine called Jughead (renamed Jugtail).

GopherVR is a 3D virtual reality variant of the original Gopher system.

Gopher server software

A copy of every known Gopher Server is permanently archived on the HAL3000 Gopher Server. The Servers may be freely downloaded from the HTTP link

See also

  • Veronica — the search engine system for the Gopher protocol, an acronym for "Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Net-wide Index to Computer Archives".
  • Jugtail — an alternative search engine system for the Gopher protocol. Jugtail was formerly known as Jughead.
  • Gopher+ — early proposed extensions to the Gopher protocol
  • Super Dimension Fortress — a non-profit organization which provides free Gopher hosting
  • Phlog — The gopher version of a weblog
  • Wide area information server — a search engine whose popularity was contemporary with Gopher


  1. Hello, welcome to my phlog (gopher link)
  2. Google Groups archive of bit.listserv.cwis-l discussion
  3. Google Groups archive of comp.infosystems.gopher discussion
  5. Google Groups
  7. gopher://
  8. The Overbite Project, hosted by Floodgap Systems
  9. gopher://
  10. Kaiser, Cameron (2007-03-19). "Down the Gopher Hole". TidBITS. Retrieved 2007-03-23. 
  11. gopher://
  13. gopher:// "Service note for 1 April 2009—This isn't a joke server, guys, we've been running for 10 years!"
  14. Wired News: Gopher: Underground Technology
  15. "Microsoft Security Bulletin MS02-047". Microsoft. 2003-02-28. Retrieved 2007-03-23. 
  16. "Bug 388195 - Remove gopher protocol support for Firefox". Retrieved 2008-08-24. 
  17. "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: OmniWeb 5.9.2 now includes Gopher support!". OmniGroup. 2009-04-01. Retrieved 2009-04-03. 
  18. "A comprehensive list of changes for each version of OmniWeb". OmniGroup. 2009-04-01. Retrieved 2009-04-03. 
  19. "Release Notes for Internet Explorer 7". Microsoft. 2006. Retrieved 2007-03-23. 
  20. To determine whether a Web browser supports Gopher, compare the display of this gopher menu with the same menu produced by a Gopher to HTML gateway in the browser.

External links



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