Sign up ×
Programmers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professional programmers interested in conceptual questions about software development. It's 100% free.

"Directories containing directories and files" seems to have been around forever, but there must have been a first.

share|improve this question

migrated from Aug 25 '11 at 0:56

This question came from our site for professional and enthusiast programmers.

4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

I think Multics introduced the first hierarchical filesystem and presented it at the 1965 Fall Joint Computer Conference. (The reference is one of the papers from that conference, describing the filesystem.)

Unix of course also has an hierarchical filesystem, which it seems to have inherited from Multics.

The wikipedia article on Unix says:

Unix also popularized the hierarchical file system with arbitrarily nested subdirectories, originally introduced by Multics. Other common operating systems of the era had ways to divide a storage device into multiple directories or sections, but they had a fixed number of levels, often only one level. Several major proprietary operating systems eventually added recursive subdirectory capabilities also patterned after Multics. DEC's RSX-11M's "group, user" hierarchy evolved into VMS directories, CP/M's volumes evolved into MS-DOS 2.0+ subdirectories, and HP's MPE group.account hierarchy and IBM's SSP and OS/400 library systems were folded into broader POSIX file systems.

The earliest hierarchical file system with which I had personal experience at the time of its release was ODS-2, introduced with VMS in 1979.

share|improve this answer
Multicians are a loyal bunch, even to this day. Here is a link for Multics – dbasnett Feb 28 '13 at 18:53
On his WWW home page ( Peter Neumann, the author of the paper linked above, lists Albert Einstein as one of his mentors and as his inspiration for hierarchical abstractions, and he further relates this idea directly to its application in Multics. – Greg A. Woods Nov 3 at 20:16

An early hierarchical file system was developed for the Electronic Recording Machine Accounting (ERMA) Mark 1, as presented in this 1958 Eastern Joint Computer Conference paper Organization Generated in and Retrieval of Records a Large-Scale Engineering Project by G.A. Barnard III and L. Fein:

fig 2, fig 3

Fig. 3 is self-explanatory. It shows the arrangement of the records in the file folders.

This file system is "closed" in the sense that it is bounded by the decimally integral coding of categories from 00 to 100 and by an exahustive listing of generic attributes and categories. However, it is expandable in the sense that, when necessary. new entries are permitted within the subcategories and parameters without resorting to modification of the original file structure. For example, categories test equipment-51, external equipment-52, and tools-53, were added later in the only reasonable location; in the 50 series, auxiliary equipment. This method of adding new categories to the file can be likened to the use of the familiar accordian file in which a suitable pocket can be stretched to fit new material, but the structure of the containing folds of the file and its major pockets remain unchanged; This is in contrast to a file of rigid construction in which the only recourse for addition is to append material or to make a new container.

share|improve this answer
Great to have a link to the actual paper! – dmeister Dec 30 '11 at 18:31
This is a mostly paper-based system, though it is possible Neumann was aware of it. – Greg A. Woods Nov 3 at 20:17

IBM developed IMS in 1966, but I think you're looking for something simpler than that

share|improve this answer

I am by no means sure about this information, but wasn't the ICL system for storing on high speed drums (concrete cored) a hierarchical system? This is at about the same time as the ICL CAFS system which (like Don's answer) was first introduced in 1965.


The ICL system may fall into the category (described by Don from the Wikipedia article ) as having a fixed number of levels. I don't know where to find the information to resolve whether or not it was truly hierarchical. The ICL system was developed from the LEO range (of several companies that were combined to form ICL) which did not (AFAIK) have any persistent storage - being reliant on mercury delay lines for temporary storage.

share|improve this answer
For anyone not familiar, ICL's CAFS is a whole different idea that also comes from the 1960s, and was first prototyped in the early 1970s. CAFS stands for Content Addressable File Store. – Greg A. Woods Nov 3 at 20:29
I believe the first hierarchical file system from ICL was in the GEORGE 3 OS and it was apparently inspired by Multics. – Greg A. Woods Nov 3 at 20:49

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.