The History of R

In class, Prof. Schedlbauer mentioned that the R language got its name from the language it was created to be an alternative to, S.  We also discussed the fact that R has many “quirks” (or flaws depending on who you ask) due to it being created completely by open-source contributors.  I have always found the history of programming languages interesting and enjoy following a language from its roots to the version of it that is in use today and these conversations about R made me realize that I knew very little about its history so I did some research and thought I should share it here.

R was originally created at the University of Auckland, New Zealand by a pair of professors, Ross Ihaka and Robert Gentleman, to aid undergraduate students in doing data analysis.  While it’s name is partially a tongue-in-cheek reference to the S language that much of its functionality was inspired by, it is also a reference to the first letter of both of it’s creators first names.  According to this article, conversations between the two about developing the tool began began in the early 1990’s with work on it starting in 1991.  Neither of the languages creators ever anticipated it becoming the widely used tool that it is today.  Instead, they hoped that it may be used to help teach intro level statistics classes.

R’s first open source release came in 1995 and in 2000 R 1.0.0, the first official version, was released.  Since then, the language has grown to serve an incredibly large user base, although the exact size of that user base is extremely difficult if not impossible to determine.  One way to measure the popularity of R is to look at contributions to its open source package repository, CRAN.  This was done by one R user who created the following graph of the number of published R packages on CRAN (yes, he did it using R).


This exponential growth can most likely be attributed in part to the recent growth in data science related fields as more and more users find R to be the tool they need and look for ways to improve it.  It’s quite possible that after our introduction to R in this class, we will become contributors to this rapidly growing community.


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