Friday, April 13, 2007

Internet Wayback Machine shows web's past

Peabody's Improbable History was a segment of the popular and witty Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon series starting in 1959. It starred Mr. Peabody, a talking dog historian, and Sherman, his pet human boy.

They used their "Wayback Machine" to visit historic events, and helped to make history turn out the way it was supposed to. Each episode ended with Mr. Peabody delivering an agonizing pun that caused Sherman and viewers to groan.

In one episode, William Tell is nearly blind and likely to kill his son in the process of shooting the apple from his head. Peabody and Sherman help history by hiding a strong magnet in the apple that attracts the tip of the arrow, enabling a perfect shot. Mr. Peabody ends the history lesson with a pun about Tell's eyesight being so bad that a disorder was named after him: Tell-a-vision. (GROAN)

Alas, that Wayback Machine was pure fiction, from the inventive mind of cartoonist Jay Ward; but a free online service will let you see the web the way it used to be -- and maybe even see yourself the way you used to be.

The non-profit Internet Archive has built an Internet library, with the purpose of offering permanent access for researchers, historians, and scholars to historical collections that exist in digital form. Founded in 1996 and located in San Francisco, the Archive includes texts, audio, moving images, software and archived web pages. You can browse through over 85 billion pages dating from the Archive's start to a few months ago.

To use the Archive's Wayback Machine, go to and enter a url (a www web address). A page will open up, showing entries going back as far as 1996. Sometimes there will be a few pages per year, sometimes as many as one per day. Just click on a date, and you go WAYBACK. Keyword searching is not currently supported.

In most cases, you will be able to view entire websites, not just home pages, but a few graphic images may be missing and some links may be dead. It's a fascinating way to spend a few spare minutes, or many hours. The archive is an invaluable research tool, a good way to recover your own deleted webwork (see how great you were or how far you've come), and may help resolve copyright disputes. If you find it useful or fun, donate a few bucks to help the project keep going.

If you want to go wayback to the 1960s and see Mr. Peabody and Sherman, you can buy a Rocky and Bullwinkle collection DVD at It's a very important part of American cultural history that belongs in every home. Rocky the flying squirrel, and Bullwinkle the Moose, inspired Simpsons creator Matt Groening; and Family Guy talking dog Brian owes a lot to Mr. Peabody.

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