The World’s Oldest Source Code Repositories

Most software doesn’t survive very long. The hard truth is that more than 80% of the open source software being written today will be forgotten in a few years.

For those projects that do succeed and thrive, the developers typically decide at some point that they need a new source control system. For many reasons (lack of time, lack of tools, or a simple desire to start fresh), most projects simply throw away their development history at this point and start again.

All of which means that most source control repositories are lucky to survive more than a couple of years.

However, there’s a class of meticulous, responsible, (obsessed?) programmer that somehow manages to keep the same thread of development alive and unbroken for decades.

Among the 14,000 repositories Ohloh is currently tracking, here are the three oldest open source repositories — all three of which are still under continuous development today. [And if we’re missing something, please let us know!]

Number 3: GCC, the GNU Complier Collection – View Contributors

Started in November 1988

This building block of the open source world is all the more impressive for surviving a conversion from RCS through CVS and into Subversion. Ohloh found 350 developers listed in this repository, two of which have over 10 years of development experience.

Number 2: GNU Emacs – View Contributors

Started in April 1985

No matter which side of the Emacs/Vim debate you come down on, you have to hand it to this team for keeping their CVS repository alive for over 22 years. And yes, rms is still hacking away after 20,000 commits. Impressive.

Number 1: BRL-CAD – View Contributors

Started in April 1983

When this open source repository was getting started, I was saving my pennies for a Sinclair ZX-81 kit. That computer and all its code are long gone, but BRL-CAD marches on. Not surprisingly, BRL-CAD developers were very helpful in wringing obscure bugs out of the Ohloh CVS parser [thanks sean!].

  • Very interesting, thanks. I’d love to see such analysis articles (like your PHP Eats Rails for Breakfast piece) more often in your blog, on top of new feature announcements and community-related posts.

    And for the opensource hall of fame, I guess the next three questions are:
    * What are the projects with the largest codebase?
    * What are the projects with the largest number of contributors?
    * What are the projects with the highest LOC/contributor ratio?

  • SPICE is even older (1973)

  • yakumo9275 (yakumo9275)

    Nethack from 1987

  • robin (Robin Luckey)

    Can you find the source control URLs for SPICE or Nethack?

    Nethack appears to be hosted on SourceForge in tarball form only, and I can’t find the CVS.

    SPICE appears to have once been hosted on SoureForge, but now resolves to a 404.

    I’d be very surprised and impressed to find a continuous source control repository that dates back to 1973.

  • In “Practical Development Environments”, p.246, I estimate some useful tool lifespans in years. I think repositories do last more than a couple of years in most environments. Their age is probably related to how hard it is to export their data.

    • SCM tool: 5-10
    • Build tool: 8-15
    • Test environment: 3-6
    • Bug tracking system: 3-5
    • Documentation environment: 5-10
  • Well, probably 90% of the open source software being written today is crap, so maybe it won’t be so bad if 80% of it is forgotten in a few years.

  • MichelJung (Michel Jung)

    @Samuel Bronson ack ^^

  • opensourceprojects (opensourceprojects)

    I thought that it was already obsolete.


  • @robin (replying to your comment of 10 years ago!) I found the SPICE repo (presently git, browsable at and the oldest commit there (called “fresh start”) is browsable at – obviously that was when the previous content was imported into the latest repo-incarnation – git. So on the one hand it is the same continous development tree (same “project”) as was started in 1973, but on the other hand it isn’t the same actual repo. Also, SPICE is on its third rewrite (this version – 3 – is in C, version 1 & 2 were in Fortran).