I am currently preparing a course about creating Python packages and I want to start with a history of key developments in software distribution. One corner stone are software repositories. PyPI (Python) was created in 2000 and inspired by CPAN. CPAN (Perl) was created in 1993 and is inspired by CTAN. CTAN was created in 1992.

I can't find any earlier software repository. Was CTAN actually something unique which was not available in other programming languages? Or was CTAN inspired by other projects?

  • 2
    You might want to tighten up your requirements here; CTAN was based on the Aston archive, which was one of many tape-based systems for archiving 'stuff' ...
    – Joseph Wright
    Commented Feb 4, 2020 at 20:11
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    there were many software repositories ftp archives etc, but ctan was (possibly) the first that aimed to be (a) globally coordinated and (b) Comprehensive for a particular software system. Commented Feb 4, 2020 at 20:17
  • @JosephWright not only tape, JANET was active even if we didn't have the internet:-) Commented Feb 4, 2020 at 20:18
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    The obvious reference is tug.org/TUGboat/tb14-3/tb40green.pdf
    – egreg
    Commented Feb 4, 2020 at 20:20
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    @egreg a list of very honourable people in the footnote on page 1. Commented Feb 4, 2020 at 20:32

2 Answers 2


The early Linux distributions had a sort of package repositories (e.g. Slackware). Earlier you could get sources for Linux-hacked stuff on some places (forget details, that was 1992 or so for me).

Earliest repositories (source) were e.g. the GNU mirrors (starting around 1985 or so), public FTP (and gopher) sites were plenty by 1990 (and probably much, much older). Binary packages were not popular, due to wild differences in architecture/operating system/setup common in the '80s. A common way to share sources (for non-Internet connected sites in the '80s) were Usenet groups like comp.sources.unix (got my first version of Perl as thirty-something posts you had to unpack an stitch together just right, configure by futzing in Makefile macros and then --hopefully-- build.

First mention of software sharing I've seen documented was the custom of dropping off tapes with interesting stuff at DECUS (DEC User group) conferences, and pick them up with a compilation of everything contributed at the end. I believe IBM users had something similar going too. This was in the '70s or even earlier (sorry, away on vacation, no access to my computer now).


CTAN was preceded by the Aston Archive, as reported in several TUGboat articles:

However, as noted in the answer by @vonbrand, DECUS was almost certainly earlier in having a formal software distribution mechanism, on tape. TeX was part of this collection, as reported in TUGboat:

Several followup reports appear in later TUGboat issues.

TeX was an active topic at DECUS meetings; this is the earliest report:

I can't say whether the UKTeX archive was inspired by other software projects, but it was clearly something that was needed, and initiated to meet that need.

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