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Everyone knows how important documentation is -- for a project to grow past a certain point, it's a must-have. However, almost every software project of any size nowadays comes with at least a README file.

When did including a README file (specifically with that name) first become commonplace? It appears the first BSD kernel had a "READ_ME" file, so it must be pre-1977. But at least in the software packages listed here, it's not universal.

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    @Anonymous The Wikipedia article you link to answers the question with "It is unclear when the convention began, ...", so actually not at all.
    – tofro
    Mar 23, 2018 at 9:32
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    @tofro that's why it is not an answer, but comment :) in general this question will not have right answer unless someone will stand up and say "I was the first". "Read me" type documents existed from the ancient ages, and must have appeared as soon as file system files were invented.
    – Anonymous
    Mar 23, 2018 at 9:52
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    @Anonymous I was a bit confused as you didn't bother to mention what Wikipedia actually says. "... it is a bit questionable how reliable that information ["we don't know"] is" - I'd say, that's very reliable.
    – tofro
    Mar 23, 2018 at 9:58
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    @Anonymous Well, "We don't know" is 100% reliable in my opinion ;)
    – tofro
    Mar 23, 2018 at 10:56
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    This has been discussed here: softwareengineering.stackexchange.com/questions/96966/…
    – Thomas
    Mar 25, 2018 at 17:51

2 Answers 2

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This file for some PDP-10 software is from 1974 and called "README.TXT":

http://pdp-10.trailing-edge.com/decus_20tap3_198111/01/decus/20-0079/readme.txt.html

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    I like how they had to explain what a README file is.
    – Leo B.
    Feb 8, 2019 at 17:32
  • DECUS is DEC User's Group, they used to gather yearly and did share software by dropping off tapes at the beginning of the event, which volunteers compiled and copied, to be picked up at the end of the event.
    – vonbrand
    Mar 2, 2021 at 23:57
  • @LeoB. when there are 16 README files on a tape, and people get sloppy about copying, it's good practice to tell people what the README is describing.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 29, 2023 at 8:04
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Regarding "specifically with that name" part: as "README" is an obvious play on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland "Eat me" and "Drink me", this kind of frivolity could unlikely originate from a commercially distributed product.

The point being that a BSD distribution is a probable origin, soon after followed by commercial vendors, as an "established practice".

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    I am not convinced. Firstly, I don't believe that commercial distributions would somehow not engage in frivolity. Secondly, AFAIK the first BSD was in 1978, which is a pretty late date.
    – dave
    Feb 8, 2019 at 3:33
  • The other answer gives an earlier date, 1974, but also from a non-commercial distribution, DEC Users Group. Also to note is the explanation ([README.TXT is the DOC file for SPICE/SINC/SLIC]) at the beginning of the file. That likely indicates that the word README" was a novelty then.
    – Leo B.
    Feb 8, 2019 at 5:43
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    The premise here, however, is that commercial software was not prone to frivolous naming. That does not ring true to me (as a long-time user and programmer of such software).
    – dave
    Feb 8, 2019 at 13:40
  • @another-dave Rather, not prone to originating frivolous naming, at least not in the 70s. Computer companies were still all suit-and-tie back then, weren't they?
    – Leo B.
    Feb 8, 2019 at 17:30
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    Not in the corner of DEC I inhabited in the later half of the 1970s. Prior to that I used a DEC-10 system whose OS included command PLEASE (message to operator), GRIPE (lodge complaint, presumably about something not working), and FUDGE (never did work that one out). Those sound at least as frivolous as 'README' to me. And of course there's the response to 'MAKE LOVE', but that was likely an import.
    – dave
    Feb 9, 2019 at 0:48

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