I know there was ArcInfo Workstation, and its earlier name of ARC/INFO which was used prior to the release of ArcGIS 8.0, but how did "Arc" come into the name?

I suspect because of the arc which is a geometric element representing a vector feature.


2 Answers 2


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 from its initial PIOS (Polygon Information Overlay System) product , 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! Dec 27, 2013 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! Dec 27, 2013 at 22:18
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    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, 2013 at 22:29
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    Esri staff don't count in the attendance numbers.
    – Vince
    Dec 28, 2013 at 18:28
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    "In the beginning", ha.
    – mdsumner
    Dec 28, 2013 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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ArcInfo , 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.

  • 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, 2015 at 3:22
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    @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). Jul 3, 2015 at 0:29
  • Esri actually had an earlier GRID (raster) product alongside the vector ARC/INFO in the mid-late 80s. My understanding is that ARC/INFO was Esri's third product after PIOS (Polygon Information Overlay System) and GRID (for raster).
    – PolyGeo
    Jul 5, 2017 at 9:31
  • @PolyGeo The Esri timeline doesn't mention a raster product before PIOS or in the PIOS-ARC/INFO gap. I remember the addition of Grid at the 5.1 Beta training, and the splash it made because Esri had always been vector-oriented. (5.0 had introduced Image Integrator, but TIFF hadn't yet been added as a raster format for manipulation).
    – Vince
    Jul 5, 2017 at 12:19
  • @Vince I'm curious if anyone else remembers the "old Grid" which I only used at the South Australian Department of Environment and Planning (SADEP) which would have been on a VAX in 86-88 contemporary with A/I 3.1-4.0. It had nothing like the functionality of the new GRID. We used it for bushfire modeling and I remember having to sticky tape together three plots which were about a foot wide each to make about an A0 size final product. I was new at the time and may have been wrong about it being an ESRI product but have always thought that it was.
    – PolyGeo
    Jul 5, 2017 at 18:56

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