A Brief History of Python

Sam Wood

October 14th, 2015

From data to web development, Python has come to stand as one of the most important and most popular open source programming languages being used today. But whilst some see it as almost a new kid on the block, Python is actually older than both Java, R, and JavaScript. So what are the origins of our favorite open source language?

In the beginning...

Python's origins lie way back in distant December 1989, making it the same age as Taylor Swift. Created by Guido van Rossum (the Python community's Benevolent Dictator for Life) as a hobby project to work on during week around Christmas, Python is famously named not after the constrictor snake but rather the British comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus. (We're quite thankful for this at Packt - we have no idea what we'd put on the cover if we had to pick for 'Monty' programming books!)

Python was born out of the ABC language, a terminated project of the Dutch CWI research institute that van Rossum worked for, and the Amoeba distributed operating system. When Amoeba needed a scripting language, van Rossum created Python. One of the principle strengths of this new language was how easy it was to extend, and its support for multiple platforms - a vital innovation in the days of the first personal computers. Capable of communicating with libraries and differing file formats, Python quickly took off.

Computer Programming for Everybody

Python grew throughout the early nineties, acquiring lambda, reduce(), filter() and map() functional programming tools (supposedly courtesy of a Lisp hacker who missed them and thus submitted working patches), key word arguments, and built in support for complex numbers.

During this period, Python also served a central role in van Rossum's Computer Programming for Everybody initiative. The CP4E's goal was to make programming more accessible to the 'layman' and encourage a basic level of coding literacy as an equal essential knowledge alongside English literacy and math skills. Because of Python's focus on clean syntax and accessibility, it played a key part in this. Although CP4E is now inactive, learning Python remains easy and Python is one of the most common languages that new would-be programmers are pointed at to learn.

Going Open with 2.0

As Python grew in the nineties, one of the key issues in uptake was its continued dependence on van Rossum. 'What if Guido was hit by a bus?' Python users lamented, 'or if he dropped dead of exhaustion or if he is rubbed out by a member of a rival language following?'

In 2000, Python 2.0 was released by the BeOpen Python Labs team. The ethos of 2.0 was very much more open and community oriented in its development process, with much greater transparency. Python moved its repository to SourceForge, granting write access to its CVS tree more people and an easy way to report bugs and submit patches. As the release notes stated, 'the most important change in Python 2.0 may not be to the code at all, but to how Python is developed'.

Python 2.7 is still used today - and will be supported until 2020. But the word from development is clear - there will be no 2.8. Instead, support remains focused upon 2.7's usurping younger brother - Python 3.

The Rise of Python 3

In 2008, Python 3 was released on an almost-unthinkable premise - a complete overhaul of the language, with no backwards compatibility. The decision was controversial, and born in part of the desire to clean house on Python. There was a great emphasis on removing duplicative constructs and modules, to ensure that in Python 3 there was one - and only one - obvious way of doing things. Despite the introduction of tools such as '2to3' that could identify quickly what would need to be changed in Python 2 code to make it work in Python 3, many users stuck with their classic codebases. Even today, there is no assumption that Python programmers will be working with Python 3.

Despite flame wars raging across the Python community, Python 3's future ascendancy was something of an inevitability. Python 2 remains a supported language (for now). But as much as it may still be the default choice of Python, Python 3 is the language's future.

The Future

Python's userbase is vast and growing - it's not going away any time soon. Utilized by the likes of Nokia, Google, and even NASA for it's easy syntax, it looks to have a bright future ahead of it supported by a huge community of OS developers. Its support of multiple programming paradigms, including object-oriented Python programming, functional Python programming, and parallel programming models makes it a highly adaptive choice - and its uptake keeps growing.