The History of the Hackathon

24 August 2016

Over recent years we've seen more and more organisations running Hackathons – indeed, this will be One iota's third.

Exactly what a Hackathon is and just why companies run them is pretty common knowledge these days, so we won't teach you to suck eggs – but the origins of the event are perhaps not so well known.

While the team sit here, hacking away at The Sharp Project - one of Manchester's key creative hubs, we thought we'd look into how it all began. And it's pretty interesting stuff. The word "hackathon" is a portmanteau of the words "hack" and "marathon", where "hack" is used in the sense of exploratory programming, not its alternate meaning as a reference to computer crime.

While no one is 100% sure of the exact origin of the term, it seems to have been created independently by both the developers of OpenBSD and the marketing team of Sun; these usages both first happened in 1999.

OpenBSD's apparent first use of the term referred to a cryptographic development event held in Calgary on June 4, 1999, where 10 developers came together to avoid legal problems caused by export regulations of cryptographic software from the United States. Since then, a further 3-5 events per-year have occurred around the world to advance development, generally on University campuses.

For Sun, the usage referred to an event at the JavaOne conference from June 15 to June 19, 1999; there John Gage challenged attendees to write a programme in Java for the new Palm V using the infrared port to communicate with other Palm users and register it on the Internet.

Starting in the mid to late 2000s, hackathons became significantly more widespread, and began to be increasingly viewed by companies and venture capitalists as a way to quickly develop new software technologies, and to locate new areas for innovation and funding.

So 17 years on, here we go with our third one. Now back to it!

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