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Early Genealogy Programs
A Look Back at the Humble Beginnings of Genealogy Software

 
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By Dick Eastman

Who wrote the first genealogy program for home computers and made it available to others? Do you know the answer?

For this question, let’s not consider specialized mainframe programs written by corporations or other organizations for their internal operations, such as those used internally by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Also, let's not consider programs written by someone for their own personal use and never released to the general public. For this discussion, we should only consider released programs that were used by many people and were well known at the time.

Actually, I wrote a crude genealogy program in COBOL in 1975 that ran on my employer's Honeywell 2070 mainframe computer, a computer that filled a large room and cost more than a million dollars. I ran the program during off hours, when my employer's business workload was low. The "database" was stored on 80-column punch cards. When I say it was "crude," I am probably guilty of understatement. This program of less than 100 lines of code had perhaps 1 percent of the capability of today's genealogy programs. All it did was print formatted reports on the system’s printer. The reports were in all capital letters as that mainframe's $30,000 line printer was not capable of printing lower case. While I wrote that little program in 1975, I suspect that I wasn't the first to write such a utility. I bet there were other folks quietly writing similar programs for personal use even in the late 1960s.

The first well-known released and supported genealogy program for microcomputers probably was "Genealogy: Compiling Roots and Branches," or GCRAB, written by John J. Armstrong. It was featured on the cover of the September 1979 issue of Personal Computing Magazine. An accompanying article inside the magazine described the operation of this new software, which was written in Microsoft BASIC for the TRS-80 computer manufactured by Radio Shack. The source code was printed in the magazine, and you typed the code into your computer. In those early days there was no standardized method of shipping software on floppy disks. In fact, floppy disk drives were an expensive option on the TRS-80, and many people never purchased them! "Genealogy: Compiling Roots and Branches" sold for $250.

In early 1980, CommSoft was founded as a small company that produced software for ham radio operators. In April 1981, CommSoft's owner, Howard Nurse, and programmer Herb Drake released their first genealogy product: ROOTS89 for the Heathkit H-89 computers. In later years, the company released newer versions, including ROOTS/M for CP/M computers and then ROOTS 2 through ROOTS 5 for the IBM-compatible PCs. Prices varied a bit, depending upon the options selected, but the program typically had a base price of $250. If you ordered ROOTS -3 plus all the optional software modules, the total price was over $400! Palladium purchased the ROOTS product line in May 1997 and chose the name Ultimate Family Tree for the product. Broderbund, in turn, later purchased Palladium. Broderbund stopped developing the program, however, and it was eventually dropped from their catalog. By the way, CommSoft is still in business and is still creating ham radio software. Take a look at: www.commcat.com/

In 1982, Steve Vorenberg, president of Quinsept Software of Lexington, Massachusetts, released Family Roots. Before long, he produced versions for almost every computer then on the market, including Apple II, Commodore 64, Commodore 128, IBM PCs, and Macintosh. It sold for $225. Family Roots enjoyed a healthy market share for some time, but sales eventually declined as newer and stronger programs became available. Quinsept folded in August 1997.

"Genealogy On Display" by Melvin O. Duke appeared around 1982 as a shareware program written in BASIC. "Family Ties" for CP/M computers by Neil Wagstaff also was released about the same time. Both later became available for the new IBM Personal Computers.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints first introduced Personal Ancestral File (PAF) in 1983. The program had a previously unheard-of low price of only $35.

In the mid to late 1980s, the list of available genealogy programs mushroomed. Two things fascinate me: the exponential growth in capabilities of genealogy software and the accompanying drop in prices. In 1984, the typical genealogy program sold for more than $200 and had limited reporting capability when compared to today’s software. Most genealogy programs of that era had no provision for recording source citations and also could not record conflicting data. Each "fact" was treated as if it was the only fact ever found. If two different places or dates of birth were found, the user of the program had to decide which was accurate and then entered only that one "fact." There was no place within the program to explain why that one fact was chosen, nor to tell where the information was obtained. Many of the programs of the early 1980s could not even store text notes.

None of the programs of the early 1980s could exchange data with any other genealogy program of that time; GEDCOM had not yet been invented. If a user wanted to upgrade to a more powerful program, he or she had to manually re-enter all the data!

Contrast all that with today's scene. At least two good genealogy programs are available free of charge: Legacy Standard Edition and Personal Ancestral File. The more powerful genealogy programs of today sell for $20.00 to $99.00. All of today's programs record text notes as well as source citations. All of them generate a wide variety of printed reports. Many can also create World Wide Web reports or even data for inclusion on a CD-ROM disk. All of today's programs can exchange data with other genealogy programs via GEDCOM files.

Genealogy software has come a long ways in twenty years. Looking back on the primitive programs that began the digital revolution of genealogy, I really do not miss "the good old days."

Next Page > Timeline of Genealogy Software - Reviews of the First Programs

 



URL: http://genealogy.about.com/library/authors/uceastman1a.htm

Article from Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter and is
©2002 by Richard W. Eastman.
Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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