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I know there was ArcInfo Workstation and some other older software that Esri has developed for taking care of land use polygons management. But how did this "Arc" came into the name? Is it simply because of the arc which is a geometric element representing a vector feature?

I am asked quite often and frankly speaking don't have a sound answer to this question.

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up vote 28 down vote accepted

In the beginning, there was INFO (a standalone relational file manager, available on minicomputers like Prime, VAX, and DG) made by Henco. Then ESRI (now Esri) added geometry processing, paired with attributes within INFO, and called the result ARC/INFO ("arc" files supported line types, both linear features and the edges of polygons). The name mutated to Arc/Info sometime after ArcView was released, and eventually became the legacy ArcInfo Workstation product.

The "Arc" part has been retained across time, and the current Esri product line ups the ante to "ArcGIS" in most of the core products.

There's a more complete timeline on the Esri web site.

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Fantastic summary of the history of the software and how the name came to be! – RyanDalton Dec 27 '13 at 21:07
Agree with Ryan, a great summary. Thanks for posting, Vince! Interesting that it was specifically arcs that were of so high importance; I would be more concerned with just "vector" or "spatial". Anyway, has a answered question now! – Alex Tereshenkov Dec 27 '13 at 22:18
The other core file was the lab/lax pair (labels), and I'm glad I didn't have to do demos of Lab/Info or LabGIS, though PalGIS might have been cool (polygon-arc-list). – Vince Dec 27 '13 at 22:29
Esri staff don't count in the attendance numbers. – Vince Dec 28 '13 at 18:28
"In the beginning", ha. – mdsumner Dec 28 '13 at 22:46

My understanding is that in the beginning of GIS on mainframes and continuing into the minicomputer and then personal computer age, different programs were used for vector and raster processing — memory was at a premium and programs needed to remain small and focused. ArcInfo was originally designed for vectors, other programs like Idrisi were designed for rasters. Since every vector feature can be represented by a series of arcs (though effectively flat ones here), “Arc” was a simple way to signify the vector focus of the software.

According to , raster processing in the form of the GRID subsystem was added in Arc/Info 6 and then added to ArcView 3, which must have been sometime in the late ’90s.

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I disagree (shouldn't I?).As you said "every vector feature can be represented by a series of arcs"-What about points?Points have spatial representation by a pair of coordinate (X,Y). – SIslam Jun 2 '15 at 3:22
@SIslam, that's a 1-point-line (arc) geometry. Other systems of the time used a 2-point-line with length 0 to represent points, rather than having a separate point/line geometry type. In the original ArcInfo polygons were created from bounding lines that closed... the rigid polygon-line-node topology was a curse to edit (every time you did the polygons broke) but a boon to programmers who could find from any geometry the related geometries.. That way there was only one base geometry type and nodes/polygons were just structures (not geometries themselves). – Michael Miles-Stimson Jul 3 '15 at 0:29

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