0.2 History of R

The story of R begins at Bell Labs in 1975, with the development, by John Chambers and several other colleagues, of the S language for statistical computing. The language became well-known among statisticians and data analysts, especially in the academic community.

In the early 1990’s Ross Ihaka of the University of Auckland in New Zealand was making a study of the Scheme language as described in the classic MIT textbook Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (Harold Abelson and Sussman 1996), and was impressed with the possibilities of the language for data analysis applications. Desiring to build a free analysis tool for his graduate students, Ihaka recruited his Auckland colleague Robert Gentleman in the project of developing a language with an external syntax similar to S but with an underlying engine based heavily upon Scheme. Because of the similarity with the better-known S—or, by some accounts, because of the initial letter in the first names of both men—they named their new language “R”.

Initially the Ihaka and Gentleman assumed that their work on the new language was scarcely more than “playing games” and that it would not be used outside of the University of Auckland. Eventually, though, the two placed a small announcement of their project on the s-news email list and began to draw the interest of other statisticians, including Martin Machler of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. Machler saw great potential for R, and in 1995 persuaded Ihaka and Gentleman to release it as “free software” under a GNU Public License. The decision to make R free stimulated further interest in the language and encouraged many experts in statistical computation to become involved in its further development.

The first official public release of R (version 1.0.0) occurred on February 29, 2000. Since that time R has grown in popularity at an increasing rate, to the point where it is by now one of the world’s most widely-used domain-specific computer languages, ranking among the top dozen computer languages overall.

Many people have contributed to the development of R. As of the composition of this History, the Comprehensive R Archive Network (CRAN) hosted 10,633 contributed packages, each of which aims to extend the capabilities of R in a specific way. R is usually the platform in which new statistical techniques are first implemented by the researchers who develop them. It is widely used in the sciences, business and finance.

References

Harold Abelson, Gary Jay Sussman, and Julie Sussman. 1996. Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. MIT Press. https://mitpress.mit.edu/sites/default/files/6515.pdf.