The 10 oldest, significant open-source programs

The 10 oldest, significant open-source programs

Summary: Does open-source software still seem "new" to you? Think again, its roots go back decades.

Python is only one of many important open-source programs that are more than 20-years old.

Today, open-source software is everywhere but many peple still think of it as being relatively new. It's not. Open-source software actually goes back decades.

Before beginning our journey in the way-back machine though we should go over our terminology. "Open source," the phrase, only goes back to February 3, 1998. The phrase was deliberately chosen to separate the more pragmatic open-source supporters from the more idealistic "free software" community members. Gallons of ink and gigabytes of pixels has been spilled on debating the differences between these two, but for my purposes I'm talking about programs that qualify by either definition.

Both concepts were actually used long before proprietary software showed up. As Richard M. Stallman, (rms) free software's founder noted, "When I started working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971, I became part of a software-sharing community that had existed for many years. Sharing of software was not limited to our particular community; it is as old as computers, just as sharing of recipes is as old as cooking."

For my list, I also decided to skip numerous small programs, such as those in the NASA COSMIC software collection. Some of these date back to the 1960s. Instead, I've focused on major programs, which are still being used today. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Black Duck Software's story, "Oldies but Goodies: Seven Projects still working Open Source."

So, with no further adieu, from the most recent to the oldest, here's my list of older significant open-source projects.

1) Linux: August 25, 1991

There were thousands of open-source programs before Linus Torvalds wrote "I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones." to the Minix Usenet group and unknowingly started the operating system juggernaut that became Linux. That said, Linux has also become the most successful of open-source programs.

Gallery: The 20 most significant events in Linux's 20-year history

Linux has become the foundation for the Internet; the operating system for super-computers; and, thanks to Android, it's becoming the most popular end-user operating system of all. There were indeed other free software programs being released in 1991 and earlier, but none would be more important.

2) Python: February 20, 1991

Guido van Rossum, Python's creator, began work on this important language in December 1989. It wasn't until February 1991, that it was released. Since then, according to Black Duck Software's Ohloh programming statistics, "Python is the fastest growing language in the open source world as measured by number of contributors."

It's not just open-source developers that support Python. Even Microsoft provides a Python IDE (integrated development environment ) for Visual Studio.

3) GNU C Library (glibc): February 1988

That said, C remains a vital language in open-source circles and to do much with C you need a good, general purpose library. Over the decades the most important of these libraries has been glibc. Most of the credit for glibc's early success goes to Roland McGrath. By early 1988, McGrath had given what would become glibc, "a nearly complete set of ANSI C library functions." From this work would spring innumerable programs including Linux.

4) Perl: December 18, 1987

Is there any system or network administrator anywhere who hasn't written at least one script in Perl? I doubt it. Larry Wall's creation has become the go-to scripting language for all servers everywhere. Not bad for a language that was "kind of designed to make awk and sed semi-obsolete."

5) GNU C compiler (gcc): March 22, 1987

If glibc is important then gcc is vital. At its start, gcc only supported C. Today, it supports, to name but a few, C, C++, Objective C, Fortran, and Java. Almost every free software software project owes a debt of gratitude, and a lot of its foundation programming, to gcc.

6) GNU Emacs: 1984

Before there was gcc, the first major GNU program was the GNU Emacs programming editor. While I was never crazy about it—I'm a vi guy—I couldn't begin to count how many programs were written in GNU Emacs. Indeed some people assume that GNU Emacs was the first version of the editor. That isn't so. Emacs actually dates all the way back to 1972.

You could argue that these early versions were also free software, and I wouldn't fight with you about it. There's no question that such early versions as Multic Emacs and Gosling Emacs shared both ideas and code. GNU Emacs, though, became the version that would change the development world.

7) X Window System: 1983

At the same time that Emacs and gcc were starting to roll, others at MIT were working on the X Window System, a TCP/IP-based networking windowing system. No one knew it at the time but X Window would eventually become the basis for all important Linux and Unix interfaces, and the foundation for the Mac OS X interface.

8) BRL-CAD: Dec 16, 1983

If you're a developer, you've heard of all these programs so far, but I'm sure few of you have heard of Ballistic Research Laboratory-computer-aided design (BRL-CAD). This program, which is still being worked on today, is used by the U.S. military to model ballistic attacks on vehicles.

9) First Berkeley Software Distribution (1BSD) Unix: March 9, 1978

The first open-source operating system wasn't Linux. That honor goes to, as Peter H. Salus wrote in A Quarter Century of UNIX, Bill Joy's first version of BSD Unix. When Unix first showed up in 1969, it was open source. Later it was closed, but BSD, the first fork, kept the free software flag flying. While BSD Unix never grabbed the headlines that Linux has, it's actually very important as well. Besides the BSD "distributions," such as FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD, both Solaris and Mac OS X got their start from BSD Unix.

10) VistA: 1975

Finally, the oldest open-source program that I know of which is still commonly used is another one you probably haven't heard of: VistA (Veterans Health Information System and Technology Architecture). VistA was the first electronics health record (EHR) system. Today, versions of VistA, such as WorldVistA, Medsphere's OpenVista, and DSS are being used to bring EHR to doctors and hospitals throughout the U.S.

So, as you can see, open-source programs not only has a long history, it's also important in far more places than in software development. Since it's very start, free software has helped us in ways we didn't even know about.

So, the next time, someone says open-source software isn't good or trustworthy, just remind them that not only is it great, it has a better and longer track record than almost any proprietary software.

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Topics: Open Source, Government US, Linux, Operating Systems, Software, Software Development, Tech Industry, After Hours

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  • Number 7...

    can you explain number 7? I don't see how X can be called the foundation of Mac OS X. OS X doesn't use X,it uses Quartz. There is X11 (XQuartz) a build of available that runs on top of OS X, but the main windowing system of OS X is not X.
    • Ha

      Nice catch! To be honest I think he missed quite a few projects, Perl anyone? Or Ruby (okay that's a young upstart next to Perl)? What Apache? Or MySQL?
      • Perl's There

        Perl is actually on the list. Ruby, Apache, and MySQL are all newer than anything on the list, so I'm guessing that's the reason for not including them. I'm wondering why BIND isn't there, and possibly Sendmail as well.
        • Well it's a very short list for all the free software out there...

          And to be honest it doesn't feel like it was particularly in-depth researched.

          Point 1 made me laugh though, opening the the list of influential software with a big fluff you to the gnu project. No gnu, no Linux. It would have simply stayed a hobby kernel and open source would either be bsd or some other kernel. I love gnu/Linux, especially the story of Linus, but it seems a bit mean to attribute all of linux's success to his hobby kernel. Who knows, one day they may finish Hurd...
    • OSX grahpcs derives from X as used in NextStep.

      Only eliminating one of the most important aspects of X - the network.
      • NeXTSTEP used Display Postscript, not X-Windows

        NeXTSTEP and OS-X don't have any X-Windows heritage....

        There were some X-Window servers that you can run *on top of* NeXTSTEP/OS-X. But the base systems of both use more sophisticated technologies based on PostScript (Display Postscript and PDF, respectively).
      • Um, what are you talking about?!?

        First, the windowing system on OSX has NOTHING to do with X-Windows, other than sharing a alphabetical similarity.
        Second, X-Windows had nothing to do with the windowing system in NeXTSTEP, either.
        Third, neither had anything to do with the "Mac OS X interface", as interfaces are NOT specified in X, just the way to draw them onscreen.
        • Um, what are You talking about

          First OSX runs Quartz-wm on top of X-Windows. No different than running Gnome or KDE on top of X-Windows
          Take a look at the process list of any Mac. You will find a process named:


          This is X-Windows.
          • MacOS HAS but does NOT REQUIRE X


            is actually X11 (no .bin) on my mac.

            And it isn't running. Because I'm not currently running any application which needs X.
          • And it isn't running (but my Mac is) So what is your point?!?

  • No. 9 - BSD

    From the article:
    "While BSD Unix never grabbed the headlines that Linux has, it's actually very important as well. Besides the BSD "distributions," such as FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD, both Solaris and Mac OS X got their start from BSD Unix.

    There's also PC-BSD, based on FreeBSD, which is as easy to use as is the more popular GNU/Linux desktop distros:

    And, the Debian Project has a port based on the FreeBSD kernel (in lieu of the Linux kernel), Debian GNU/kFreeBSD:

    Thanks, Steven.

    P.S. Steven, I neglected to thank you for the recent article where you, finally, mentioned the Replicant Project, a fully free derivative of Google's open-source Android. Thank you for that as well.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • BSD is the only truly free open

      source operating system, in that you are free to use it in ANY way that you like, including keeping your changes proprietary and charging money for them.
      • Nonsense

        It's nonsense to claim that the ability to make something non-free makes it the "only free" thing. That's similar to claiming that the right to kidnap and imprison others is the only way to be free yourself. Anarchy is the only truly free (non)system of government. It just doesn't hold true when dealing with a lot of time and a lot of people.

        Yes, BSD is Free Software. No, it's not "the only" Free operating system.
        • Thanks for pointing out that

          the OSS crowd isn't really about freedom, but about waging war on proprietary code.
          • Re: Thanks for pointing out that

            "the OSS crowd isn't really about freedom, but about waging war on proprietary code."

            What could that possibly mean? Logically, it seems to suggest they are trying to eliminate all code since they don't want free code and they don't want unfree code.

            Besides not being true, it is a silly and hateful statement.
          • Again, That's Like Saying...

            Again, that's like saying that a benevolent government 'isn't about protecting freedom, but waging war on arbitrary imprisonment.' When it comes to software, freedom and proprietary code are at odds. You can't have proprietary software that is free.

            What you're talking about is your individual freedom of action to do whatever you feel like doing without any reference to anybody else. Sometimes it's nice to be able to do whatever you want, but it has nothing to do with software freedom.

            I'm not even arguing that the BSD license is bad. I'm just saying it isn't 'more free' than a copyleft license. There is a better argument that it's less free than one. The freedom to restrict others in ways that you're not restricted is not really freedom.
      • Yep. Stealing allowed.

        Someone can take your code and sell it... whether or not they make changes. And make changes and still charge for your code.

        It is one of the big reasons BSD never took off. Few wanted to contribute to it.

        The true "give your code away".
        • I Figure It's the Biggest Reason the BSDs Success Is More Limited

          I figure that the license of the BSDs is the biggest reason that their success has been more limited than that of Linux.
          • Perhaps, perhaps not

            The USL v. BSDi lawsuit in 1992 was also a significant factor. More here:

            "The lawsuit slowed development of the free-software descendants of BSD for nearly two years while their legal status was in question, and as a result systems based on the Linux kernel, which did not have such legal ambiguity, gained greater support. Although not released until 1992, development of 386BSD predated that of Linux. Linus Torvalds has said that if 386BSD or the GNU kernel had been available at the time, he probably would not have created Linux.

            And as for the BSD license, the equally permissive Apache 2.0 license hasn't limited the success of either the Apache http server or Hadoop projects at the Apache Software Foundation (as two examples).
            Rabid Howler Monkey