Excerpt from: "Introduction to GRASS 4"

James Westervelt
June 11, 1991

[Full document PS]

4 Why Does GRASS Exist?

4.1 Original Motivations

GRASS was born in the early 80's to address needs at an Army environmental office at Fort Hood, Texas (See Table 2). Budgets were tight and talent was available. A VAX 11/780 computer was available (funded via other projects), but there were no UNIX based geographical information systems commercially available at the time. Graduate student programmers took over and created the beginnings of GRASS in the VAX's UNIX environment. When Sun Microcomputers offerred their first workstations with color monitors (Sun/1), GRASS development was moved to the workstation environment where it still thrives today.

4.2 UNIX Based GIS

GRASS was initially developed as an unnamed series of demonstrations operating on a Cromemco powered by a Z-80 cpu. Researchers at the Army Corps of Engineer's Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL) were trying to demonstrate the concept of geographical information systems to the Corps. Enough funds were originally generated to do smalonly l pilot systems on available computers. The GRASS fore-runner was a small system running on a VAX 11/780 that powered black and white graphics terminals over 300-baud modems. This system was funded by the Environmental Office at Fort Hood, Texas and was called the Fort Hood Information System (FHIS). Other environmental offices became interested and the more general purpose GRASS was born. Funding was still insufficient to purchase standard geographical information systems available at that time. Members of the National Park Service that now employ GRASS warned CERL researchers against putting in the required 10 man-years of programming. But, CERL did not gather enough funds to purchase hardware to run available software. CERL had hardware and expertise to operate UNIX machines and did the initial GRASS work on a VAX running UNIX. Within a year the fledgling GRASS was ported to an early SUN-1. So far as was known, this was the first GIS to operate in UNIX.

Year Name Additions to the System Users
1982 FHIS Single program, single location, raster database. 
Development and operation on UNIX based VAX 11/780. Digitizing on separate computer. Graphics on B/W monitor and B/W dot-matrix printer. User accessed remote via 1200 baud modem. Digitizing via polygon method.
Fort Hood, Texas
1983 IGIS Multi-program accessed via menu, adapt to different data. SUN-1 microcomputer workstation. User operated on-site. Color display. Fort McClellan, Alabama
1984 GRASS Development on MASSCOMP MCS-560 and SUN-1. Digitizing via arc-node method. First color hardcopy output. 20 different programs. Ft. Lewis, Central Washington University, National Guard Headquarters, data for 13 sites total.
1985 GRASS 1.0 First annual GRASS user group meeting - Fort Hood, Texas. First open distribution. Started inter-site electronic mail communication. Central Washington University offered first classes. About 20 sites.
1986  GRASS 1.1 Run-length encoded raster files. Multi-byte grid-cell files supported by some programs. Image analysis as GRASS sub-system (runs only on MASSCOMP). Receives Exemplary Systems in Government from URISA. Interagency steering committee established. Distribution to several dozen sites.
1987 GRASS 2.0 First programmer documentation. Some sites begin doing GRASS enhancements. GRASS distributed by Institute for Technology Development and DBA Systems. Rework of database. Adopt USGS digital line graph (DLG-3) format for vector data. Digitizing package for users. Ported to about seven different manufacturers machines. Army steering committee established. Distribution to several hundred sites. Pilot tested by Soil Conservation Service. Adopted by National Parks Service.
1988 GRASS 3.0 Image analysis reworked into GRASS; runs on all GRASS machines. Raster files can contain from 1-4 bytes per cell. DLG dropped in favor of an internal vector format. Completely new digitizing package for user. Full assortment of command-line driven programs. Approximately 170 different programs. Distribution to about 1000 sites.
1989 GRASS 3.1 Many new commands added. Significantly improved digitizing.  
1991 GRASS 4.0 This version realized the design goals set in 1986. Major additions include a standard command line parser for virtually all commands, substantial support for latitudelongitude based data, complete reorganization of command names, significantly better documentation, and performance enhancements. Distribution to every household.

Table 2: GRASS History

Addition from GRASSCLIPPINGS summer 1990:

"Now users that have paid the significant costs of joining the Internet have easy access to GRASS3.1. GRASS as a public domain product has no distribution restrictions. Programmers who use the UNIX utility ftp can log in using the login name anonymous and any password to uxc.cso.uiuc.edu ( GRASS files can be found in the directory pub/grass. Your local guru will be able to make sense of the files found therein.


Happy GRASSing, Gurus"

Back to GRASS History and source code URLs