The Wayback Machine, a time machine for the web

David Samuel plays viola in the San Francisco-based Alexander Quartet. But he almost didn’t make it into this country. “I’m a Canadian citizen,” he said, “and I therefore needed a work visa if I was coming to the United States.”

That artist’s visa required special documentation: “I was tasked with finding old programs, articles, interviews, anything that could demonstrate that I had contributed significantly to the field,” he said. Unfortunately, most of that stuff had disappeared from the internet over the years. 

Then, someone suggested he check out the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Samuel wound up finding every concert program, interview and article he needed for his visa.

The Wayback Machine has been making backups of the world wide web since 1996. Mark Graham, its director, describes it as “a time machine for the web. It does that by going and looking at webpages, hundreds of millions of them every single day right now, and stores them in our servers.”

To date there are nearly 900 billion web pages backed up, though computer scientist Brewster Kahle thinks it’s a cruel joke to call them “pages” considering their short lifespan: “The average life of a webpage is a hundred days before it’s changed or deleted,” he said.

Since 1996 the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine has been backing up every website. 

CBS News

About a million people use the Wayback Machine every day – journalists, fact-checkers, politicians, policymakers, students. It’s free and public. By going to, you can see what The New York Times looked like in 1996, or what Netflix looked like when it was a DVD-by-mail company, or what personal websites (like, say, looked like back in the day.

Kahle created the Wayback Machine in 1996, as part of a nonprofit called the Internet Archive. Inside the archive’s San Francisco headquarters, originally a Christian Science Church, you’ll find the original pews, slightly creepy statues of everyone who’s ever worked for the Internet Archive, and banks and banks and banks of computers – about one-twentieth of the servers that make up just one copy of the Internet Archive. “And then there are multiple copies to keep it safe,” Kahle said.

But Kahle wants to back up more than just the web; he wants to back up everything. “Can we get all of the published works of humankind available to anybody curious enough to have access to it?” he asked.  

He’s backing up old music, like copies of 78 rpm records … and old video games (MD-DOS classics like Oregon Trail, Prince of Persia, and an early Pac-Man), old TV shows (“We have, maybe, the world’s biggest VCR!” Kahle laughed) … and books. And everything Kahle backs up, he makes free online – even the obscure stuff, like vintage game shows, knitting magazines, and pet rock manuals.

You can even check out the books he’s scanned as though from a library.

And that’s where the trouble begins. 

Book publishers decided to sue Internet Archive over lending books. Music publishers are also suing, for $400 million. Kahle says if they win those cases, it could mean the end of the Internet Archive.

The Association of American Publishers declined an interview with “CBS Sunday Morning,” but wrote to us: “There is simply no legal justification for copying millions of copyrighted books, changing them into eBooks, and distributing them to the public, all without getting permission.”

But to Kahle, it’s a battle of good and evil. He says the publishers’ eventual goal is to stop public libraries from owning anything at all. “We’ll see how it all turns out; it’s being fought out in the courts,” he said.

The publishers won their lawsuit against Kahle’s operation; he’s filed an appeal. The record companies’ lawsuit is pending.

In happier news, violist David Samuel received his green card in September, thanks in part to the materials he found on the Wayback Machine.

Violist David Samuel performs as part of the Alexander String Quartet.

CBS News

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Story produced by David Rothman, Editor: Emanuele Secci. 

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