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Gopher protocol

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Gopher protocol

The Gopher protocol /ˈɡfər/ is a TCP/IP application layer protocol designed for distributing, searching, and retrieving documents over the Internet. Strongly oriented towards a menu-document design, the Gopher protocol presented an alternative to the World Wide Web in its early stages, but ultimately HTTP became the dominant protocol. The Gopher ecosystem is often regarded as the effective predecessor of the World Wide Web.

Invented by a team led by Mark P. McCahill at the University of Minnesota, 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 easy to use,[1] and well-suited to computing environments that rely heavily on remote text-oriented computer terminals, which were still common at the time of its creation in 1991, and the simplicity of its protocol facilitated a wide variety of client implementations. More recent Gopher revisions and graphical clients added support for multimedia.[1] Gopher was preferred by many network administrators for using fewer network resources than Web services.[2]

With its hierarchical structure, Gopher provided a useful platform for the first large-scale electronic library connections.[3] Gopher users remember the system as being "faster and more efficient and so much more organised" than today's Web services.[4] Although largely supplanted by the Web in the years following, the Gopher protocol is still in use by enthusiasts, and a small population of actively maintained servers remains.


The original Gopher system was released in late spring of 1991 by Mark McCahill, Farhad Anklesaria, Paul Lindner, Daniel Torrey, and Bob Alberti of the University of Minnesota.[5] Its central goals were, as stated in RFC 1436:

  • 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, such as searches.

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)[6] 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.[7]

The name was coined by Anklesaria[8] as a play off of several meanings of the word "gopher." The University of Minnesota mascot is the gopher,[9] a gofer (same sound) is an assistant who "goes for" things, and a gopher burrows through the ground to reach a desired location.


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.[10] As a consequence of this, some users were concerned that a licensing fee would also be charged for independent implementations.[11][12] Users were scared away from Gopher technology, to the advantage of the Web, which CERN disclaimed ownership of.[13] In September 2000, the University of Minnesota re-licensed its Gopher software under the GNU GPL.[14][15]
  • Gopher client functionality was quickly duplicated by early Web browsers, such as Mosaic, which subsumed the protocol as part of their functions.
  • Gopher has a more rigid structure compared to the free-form HTML of the Web. With Gopher, every document has a defined format and type, and the typical user navigates through a single server-defined menu system to get to a particular document. This can be quite different from the way a typical user might traverse documents on the Web.

Gopher remains in active use by its enthusiasts, and there have been attempts to revive the use of Gopher on modern platforms and mobile devices. One such attempt is The Overbite Project, which hosts various browser extensions and modern clients.

As of 2012, there are approximately 160 gopher servers indexed by Veronica-2,[16] reflecting a slow growth from 2007 when there were fewer than 100,[17] although many are infrequently updated. Within these servers Veronica indexed approximately 2.5 million unique selectors. A handful of new servers are set up every year by hobbyists – over 50 have been set up and added to Floodgap's list since 1999.[18] A snapshot of Gopherspace as it was in 2007 was circulated on BitTorrent and is still available.[19] 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 manner, principally on April Fools' Day.[20][21]

Native Gopher support

Browser Currently Supported Supported from Supported until Notes
Camino (discontinued) Yes 1.0 current Always uses port 70.
Classilla Yes 9.0 current Hardcoded to port 70 from 9.0–9.2; whitelisted ports from 9.2.1.
cURL Yes 7.21.2 (October 2010) current cURL is a command-line file transfer utility
ELinks Beta[22] Build option
Epiphany No 2.26.3 Disabled after switch to WebKit
Galeon Yes current
Google Chrome No[23] never An extension to automatically forward to Gopher proxies was available, but needs to be rewritten to work with current versions of Chrome.
Internet Explorer No 1 6.0 IE 6 SP1+ and IE with MS02-047 requires registry patch to re-enable.[24] Always uses port 70.
style="background: Template:Rh2/bgcolor; color: black; vertical-align: middle; text-align: left; font-weight: bolder; " class="rh heading table-rh" | Internet Explorer for Mac (discontinued) No 5.2.3 PowerPC-only
K-Meleon Yes current
Konqueror Plugin kio_gopher
lftp Yes ? current lftp is a command-line file transfer program
libwww Yes 1.0c (December 1992) current libwww is an API for internet applications
Line Mode Browser Yes 1.1 (January 1992) current
Lynx Yes current Complete support
Mozilla Firefox Addon 0 3.6 Always uses port 70. Built-in support dropped from Firefox 4.0 onwards;OverbiteFF.
style="background: Template:Rh2/bgcolor; color: black; vertical-align: middle; text-align: left; font-weight: bolder; " class="rh heading table-rh" | Netscape Navigator (discontinued) Yes  ?
NetSurf No Under development, based on the cURL fetcher.
OmniWeb Yes 5.9.2 (April 2009) current First WebKit Browser to support Gopher[26][27]
Opera No never Opera 9.0 includes a proxy capability
Pavuk Yes ? current Pavuk is a web mirror (recursive download) software
Safari No never
SeaMonkey Addon 1.0 2.0.14 Always uses port 70. Built-in support dropped from SeaMonkey 2.1 onwards; compatible with OverbiteFF.

Browsers that do not natively support Gopher can still access servers using one of the available Gopher to HTTP gateways.

Gopher support was disabled in Internet Explorer versions 5.x and 6 for Windows in August 2002 by a patch meant to fix a security vulnerability in the browser's Gopher protocol handler to reduce the attack surface which was included in IE6 SP1; however, it can be re-enabled by editing the Windows registry. In Internet Explorer 7, Gopher support was removed on the WinINET level.[28]

Gopher browser plugins


Gopher clients for mobile devices

Some have suggested that the bandwidth-sparing simple interface of Gopher would be a good match for mobile phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs),[31] but so far, mobile adaptations of HTML and XML and other simplified content have proven more popular. The PyGopherd server provides a built-in WML front-end to Gopher sites served with it.

The early 2010s have seen a renewed interest in native Gopher clients for popular iPad devices.

Other 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, classic Mac OS, MVS, NeXT, OS/2 Warp, most UNIX-like operating systems, VMS, Windows 3.x, 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 TCP port 70.

Gopher to HTTP gateways

Users of Web browsers that have incomplete or no support for Gopher can access content on Gopher servers via a server gateway or HTTP content, enabling any browser or web agent to access gopher content easily.

Technical details

The conceptualization of knowledge in "Gopher space" or a "cloud" as specific information in a particular file, and the prominence of the FTP, influenced the technology and the resulting functionality of Gopher.

Gopher characteristics

Gopher is designed to function and to appear 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.

250px 303px
The top level menu of a Gopher server. Selecting the "Fun and Games" menu item...
...takes the user to the "Fun and Games" menu.

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.


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

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

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

Here, the client has established a TCP connection with the server on port 70, the standard gopher port. The client then sends a string followed by a carriage return followed by a line feed (a "CR + LF" sequence). This is the selector, which identifies the document to be retrieved. If the item selector were an empty line, the default directory would 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 (i.e., a period character) 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 gopher menu, 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 gopherspace by following the links.[5]

All lines in a gopher menu are terminated by "CR + LF", and consist of five fields: the item type as the very first character (see below), the display string (i.e., the description text to display), a selector (i.e., a file-system pathname), host name (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 item type and display string are joined without a space; the other fields are separated by the tab character.

Because of the simplicity of the Gopher protocol, tools such as netcat make it possible to download Gopher content easily from the command line:

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

The protocol is also supported by cURL as of 7.21.2-DEV.[33]

Gopher item types

Item types are described in gopher menus by a single number or (case specific) letter and act as hints to the client to tell it how to handle a specific media type in a menu, analogous to a MIME type. Every client necessarily must understand itemtypes 0 and 1. All known clients understand item types 0 through 9, g, and s, and 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 a pseudo-selector to simulate an, the item type is "h", the display string is the title of the link, the item selector is "URL:", and the domain and port are that of the originating Gopher server (so that clients that do not support URL links will query the server and receive 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. Individual Gopher servers may also use localized search engines specific to their content such as Jughead and Jugtail.

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

Gopher server software

Because the protocol is trivial to implement in a basic fashion, there are many server packages still available, and some are still maintained.

See also

Computer Science portal
  • Veronica – the search engine system for the Gopher protocol, an acronym for "Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Net-wide Index to Computer Archives"
  • Gopher+ – early proposed extensions to the Gopher protocol
  • GopherVR
  • Jugtail – an alternative search engine system for the Gopher protocol. Jugtail was formerly known as Jughead.
  • SDF Public Access Unix System – 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


External links

  • List of public Gopher servers (proxied link)
  • (HTTP link)
  • An announcement of Gopher on the Usenet 8 October 1991
  • Why is Gopher Still Relevant? A position statement on Gopher's survival.
  • An article published by the technology discussion site "Ars Technica", about the Gopher community of enthusiasts nowadays
  • Sites inspired by gopher: A community server for the Collier County, FL (Naples, FL) area whose fast web interface is inspired by Gopher. It is also an example of a Gopher emulation in HTML
  • - Web based search engine to locate files and content from archived Gopher sites current and past


  • IANA Port Number allocations
  • RFC 1436 – The Internet Gopher Protocol (a distributed document search and retrieval protocol)
  • RFC 1580 – Guide to Network Resource Tools
  • RFC 1689 – Networked Information Retrieval: Tools and Groups
  • RFC 1727 – A Vision of an Integrated Internet Information Service
  • RFC 1738 – Uniform Resource Locators (URL)
  • RFC 1808 – Relative Uniform Resource Locators
  • RFC 2396 – Uniform Resource Identifiers (URI): Generic Syntax
  • RFC 4266 – The gopher URI Scheme
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