Looking Back Over 5 Years

GRAMPS turns 5 years old on April 21. It is kind of hard for me to believe that it has been that long since I posted the first release to SourceForge. I was asked to write a retrospective of the project, so I thought that the 5 year anniversary would be a good time for this.

GRAMPS got started purely by accident. I never really had any intentions of creating an Open Source genealogy project. The thought never crossed my mind. My father was working on the family genealogy using a non-Linux operating system. He would generate a GEDCOM file and email it to me and I would use a perl script that I wrote to convert the GEDCOM into HTML pages. The genealogy program he was using would generate a lot of strange things in the GEDCOM file so I decided I needed something to help fix the problems. Editing GEDCOM files is not very fun.

About that time, I was experimenting with Python at work, so I decided to try to create a simple viewer that would help me spot the errors. I was surprised how quickly python and glade helped me to develop a GNOME application, so I decided to add some editing features to help me fix the problems.

About this time, my father was getting very upset at the operating system his computer ran and we were spending hours every week on the phone fixing the problems and reinstalling the operating system. My father indicated that he would like to switch to Linux if he had a few of the applications that he needed. One of the primary tools he needed was a genealogy program.

My first thought was to find a genealogy program for him. I found “LifeLines”, which was a good program, but was non-graphical and a bit difficult to use. I investigated the “Genes” project, which looked like it had promise. I offered my help, but got no response. The project never really got off the ground and today it appears to have been abandoned.

So, I continued to hack a bit on my program, which I had started to call “Relativity”. Yes, I know that is a geeky name. I was never really happy with the name, but I didn’t have anything better and it really didn’t matter, since I was the one and only user. To this day there are still a few left over items from this name (RelLib.py, RelImage.py).

When my parents made the 1250 mile trip to visit me my father (who today is a happy Ubuntu user) was incredibly impressed by my Linux system. While we were taking breaks from drywalling my garage, we would play with “Relativity”. My father kept trying to convince me to release the program. I resisted the idea, because I didn’t see it as anything worthy of being released. But he persisted, and even came up with a new name for the program—”GRAMPS”. Of course, once he had the name he even came up with a meaning for the name (Genealogical Research and Analysis Management Programming System). After he put in all this effort, how could I refuse? So I went to SourceForge, set up a project, and on April 21, 2001, I uploaded gramps-0.1.1. I figured this would be the end of it. I released the program and assumed it would disappear into oblivion and I would continue to have a bit of fun on my own.

But something strange happened. Within a day or two I started to get a few email messages. A couple of people reported a few problems. One person sent a patch. Another offered to help translate the program to Swedish. I played along a bit, fixed a few bugs and even figured out how to support another language. I uploaded the new version (0.1.2) and figured that I was done.

But more bug reports kept coming in. More requests for enhancements kept coming. Finally, I came to the conclusion that instead of just being a Linux user, I needed to contribute back to the community. So I set up the gramps-devel and gramps-users mailing lists and decided to try to support the people using the program. I never really expected it to grow very much, so I wasn’t worried. I would answer email and make code changes while my son practiced the piano.

Over time people started packaging the program for various different platforms. People started contributing a bit of code here and there. People offered to work on language translations. And bit by bit the program started to get better. Another odd thing started happening—GRAMPS started to get mentioned on web sites and news groups whenever Linux and genealogy were discussed.

One day in October of 2002 I got an email from a user early in the morning before I went to work telling me that GRAMPS was being featured on the TechTV show, The ScreenSavers. I set my TiVo to record the episode and it stayed on my TiVo for more than a year. This unexpected plug turned out to be very valuable to the project. The number of downloads jumped dramatically and a lot of people joined the mailing lists. All of the sudden we were a credible project. I owe a big “Thank you” to Leo Laporte and the original ScreenSavers crew.

You can still find the original video clip at the G4 web site.
[That link is now dead, but after a simple request the good folks at G4 have made it live again: Gramps on The Screen Savers in 2002 and it’s also embedded in a 2011 post right here.
—Jason Simanek, 2011-02-28]

Of course, with the increased popularity, it became harder and harder to manage the project. Various different people would help out from time to time. Some would help out briefly, some would help out for longer. About a year into the project Alex Roitman started contributing. First it was with postings to the mailing list, then with a Russian translation. Then with patches and a rewrite of the manual. Then with assistance in the release process. Before too long, he was as active in the project as I was. This is when I came up with a devious plan and made Alex the co-project manager of GRAMPS. I hope he has forgiven me…

Over the next several years we started to hit some major milestones. We switched from GTK 1.2 to GTK 2.X with version 0.9. With 1.0 we released the first “stable” version. After a year of work we released version 2.0, which provided a real database backend. And in the not too distant future we will be releasing a new major release with GRAMPS 2.2.

Over the years, the project team has grown. SourceForge shows that we now have 32 people on our developer list from all over the world, including programmers, translators, documenters and support people. We now have our own web sites at gramps-project.org. Our IRC channel (#gramps at irc.freenode.net) is a busy (but friendly) place. Our mailing lists are active. Development continues to be quick.

I would like to conclude with a bit of thanks. You get into a sticky situation anytime you start mentioning people because you invariably leave someone out—so I apologize in advance. We have an active community and much of what we have done couldn’t have been accomplished without the programming skills of Richard Taylor, the programming skills and daily contributions of Martin Hawlisch and the bug report handling, packaging, and bizarre humor of Trevor Rhodes. And of course, the skills and perseverance of Alex Roitman.

But most of all, we would all like to thank our users.

Here’s looking forward to another 5 years.

Don Allingham


  • oldphart

    Just played the Beatles birthday song to celebrate…

    (maybe that could be the name of the next version…)

  • dixons


    I enjoyed reading about the history of this project. I am probably too late to help with the this version, but I noted your request for help with icon artwork.

    I am now retired and can spend more time on my art interests. I have started running my own art classes for example. I am also hooked on family history, having started over 25 years ago and used many different programs. I have not used Linux yet but am about to install SUSe this week, actually, on the recommendation of my eldest son.

    Please let me know if I can be of any help with future versions of GRAMPS.


  • jsimanek

    Wow Don, thanks for writing this post and for all of your hard work on building Gramps. I just started contributing a little to Gramps a few years ago, but I had no idea how humble Gramps’ beginnings were. By the time I discovered it in 2007 it seemed to be a pretty big project. To think, in a few months we’ll be talking about the 10th anniversary!

  • Consult Gramps about your family tree | Lee Schlesinger

    […] has a long history itself. It was started in 2001 by Don Allingham as a GEDCOM editor for his father’s data. […]

  • Virginie

    Happy birthday!

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