The ROOTS Story

Software to Make History

by Howard L. Nurse

Home computing was born in the seventies.

The first small computers inexpensive enough for early pioneers included the Apple II, Commodore Pet, and Radio Shack TRS-80. Software applications that would make life better were promised, but the years since have shown that checkbook accounting and recipe file maintenance aren't as ideally suited for the home computer as many had predicted.

When COMMSOFT was founded in 1980 we studied various home applications, finding precious few that could make intelligent use of a computer. Word processing and data management were obvious possibilities, but it was equally obvious that the resources required to make an impact in the general purpose market were considerably more than we could muster. A more specialized application was needed, one that could readily benefit from all that a computer had to offer.


Herb Drake, author of ROOTS89, ROOTS M, ROOTS II, and ROOTS III, first proposed that genealogy was an excellent candidate to meet our goals. Herb and I shared a long interest in our own genealogies, having benefited from research recorded by other family members.

  Genealogy, we decided, had the potential to use many of the strengths of personal computers, from data entry and storage, to word processing and communications. Here was our solution!


Our first genealogy project, ROOTS89, was planned and started in 1980. ROOTS89 was written for the Heath computer series. In those days, Heath computers used an operating system called HDOS (Heath Disk Operating System). An operating system is the software that controls the basic data flow through a computer. At the time there was much debate about which software would win the operating system race, and HDOS was a contender. As it turned out, Digital Research's CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers) won the first round.

A pre-production version of ROOTS89 was sent to a team of testers. "Looks good," they reported, "but what about place names and marriage information?" Back to the computer we went, to add space in the program for these necessary ingredients.

ROOTS89 was released in April of 1981 at the West Computer Fair in San Francisco. We occupied what was euphemistically called a "micro" booth, across from the rest rooms and down a remote hallway. Undaunted, we were able to take advantage of what might have been a bad situation by interesting those waiting for a spouse or friend.

John Woodward from Virginia, one of our early customers, attended the first annual National Genealogical Society Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, in May of 1981. He went armed with his Heath computer and ROOTS89 brochures and managed to squeeze a table into the fully subscribed vendor's area to show the program. John participated in a panel titled "The Future is Now: Microforms, Computers, Word Processors." Based on his reception he predicted that personal computers would get expanded attention at the 1982 conference planned for Indianapolis.

  The first issue of Genealogical Computing was published in July 1981 by Paul Andereck. (Genealogical Computing is now published by Ancestry, Inc. A directory in the first issue listed several commercial programs for genealogy, including Family Records File System by L.J. Goree; GENEALOGY Compiling Roots and Branches by John J. Armstrong; and ROOTS89 by COMMSOFT. In the first half of 1981 genealogical computing was born.

Our new "baby", ROOTS89, was born, but what a long way to go! ROOTS89 could print Family Group Sheets and Pedigree Charts. It could store up to 1200 individuals in one file. It allowed for birth, christening and death events. Routines for searching for individuals and families, names, and locations were included. Such simplicity made the program easy to use, but hardly genealogically adequate by today's standards.

ROOTS89 received high grades by industry reviewers. An early review in InfoWorld said that the ROOTS89 manual set a new standard for software manuals. A reviewer who contributed a monthly column to England's leading personal computing magazine claimed he was converted to genealogy by the program. The Heath Company in Michigan began carrying ROOTS89 as a standard product in their catalog.


Shortly after we released ROOTS89 we realized that the CP/M operating system was becoming more popular than HDOS. As the CP/M operating system was similar to HDOS, it was natural to consider converting ROOTS89 to CP/M. Our 1981 market research indicated that there were approximately 200,000 CP/M computers versus 40,000 HDOS.

Over the next six months, We rewrote ROOTS89 so that it would operate on computers using CP/M operating system.

  We made basic decisions to keep the conversion as simple as possible. There were no changes made to the program specifications. The same screens and functions would be available in ROOTS/M as in ROOTS89. No additional capabilities were added. ROOTS/M was introduced in late 1981.

Like ROOTS89, ROOTS/M received praise from reviewers. It was especially gratifying when Personal Software Magazine awarded their Software of the Month plaque to us for ROOTS/M. Heath added the new version to their catalog, and several major distributors such as SoftSel joined the list of those offering ROOTS/M. Many thousand copies of ROOTS89 and ROOTS/M were sold.


The winds of change were blowing. In 1982 IBM introduced the PC with its new MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System) software. Microsoft, in a story that is now legend, won out over Digital Research for the IBM connection. Except for one significant meeting between Digital Research and IBM that went wrong (so the story goes), today's PC operating system might be CP/M. It was becoming obvious by 1983 that IBM's standard-setting decision to use MS-DOS was obsoleting CP/M. If we were to keep up with the changing market we needed to move ROOTS to MS-DOS.

This time, rather than simply convert ROOTS/M to MS-DOS, we decided to start from scratch. A fresh start would allow us to incorporate many of the ideas suggested by our customers since we first introduced ROOTS89. Increased database size, more reports, enhanced searching functions and more complete data in the individual and marriage records were on our shopping list. An important breakthrough was designed into ROOTS II: for the first time, source citations could be entered once and then used throughout the database to document the source of data. In essence, ROOTS II was to be a brand new program, not simply an update to ROOTS/M.

  After intensive development and testing, ROOTS II was introduced at the 1984 National Genealogical Society Conference in San Francisco. Many of the design features of the earlier programs were retained, although we went through a complete rewrite. The database, expanded to a maximum of 4095 individuals, was designed to reside in the computer's memory while the program is running. This approach, the same used for spreadsheet programs, speeds program operation since the program is not required to dip into the floppy or hard disk to refresh or find data. The program was designed to be menu driven, which frees the user from needing to learn a complicated series of keystrokes to move from one function to another. All data from earlier programs could be moved into ROOTS II without further conversion, so no data entry effort was lost. Additional fields were added for important genealogical events and name and place field lengths were increased to allow more flexibility.


Of concern to all active genealogists is whether someone else may already be doing the same research. We are all aware of other immediate family members who may share our interest. What about those relatives, cousins perhaps several times removed, who may have researched the same lines we are tracing? In 1987 we decided to see what we could do to help.

Many sources exist which can help find others interested in the same lines. Queries in genealogy magazines, computer data banks, and the LDS Family Registry are a few examples. It was apparent, however, that an on-line capability for looking for those with similar research interests did not exist.

In 1984, Paul Andereck proposed the concept of a Tiny-Tafel in Genealogical Computing Magazine. A Tiny-Tafel was designed to be a concise summary of the family lines of interest, much like a query in a magazine.

  We used Paul's proposal as a basis for a Tiny-Tafel specification. The specification was then used to design a Tafel creation program for ROOTS II and a complete Tiny-Tafel database management and communication system called the Tafel Matching System (TMS).

The Tafel Matching System (TMS) is software designed to run on a computerized bulletin board system (BBS). COMMSOFT had joined with David James in New Hampshire to co-found the National Genealogy Conference (NGC) of bulletin boards in June of 1987. The TMS software was a natural adjunct to the NGC since queries could be prepared and then left for others to search. On a normal bulletin board system, messages are entered into a message stream where they are eventually replaced by newer messages. A message may stay in a bulletin board message area for one to two weeks. The TMS database would ensure that queries would remain for a long time.

There is no charge for this service. It is provided by the sysops (system operators) who contribute their own time and equipment to further genealogical communication. At the present time there are over 200 bulletin boards participating in the National Genealogy Conference, and approximately 15 boards participating in the Tafel Matching System Network.


Even before a new version of any software has been completed, a list of wishes begins to grow. This list will include suggestions and ideas from users as well as from those working on the software on a daily basis. When a new update is planned, this wish list is reviewed and evaluated. Sometimes suggestions cannot be incorporated because they would make the product too complicated to use or are in conflict with existing functions of the program. Sometimes suggestions are excluded from the final list because only one or two "votes" for that particular item were received. Each major update from COMMSOFT, however, includes most of the suggestions we are able to incorporate into the program. Along came ROOTS III!

ROOTS III, the result of over a year of program development and testing, was introduced at the NGS Conference in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1988. ROOTS III was updated four times, with the last update in June, 1991.

  ROOTS III was designed for serious genealogists. Its salient features included many that are important for a carefully documented research and reporting project.

Some of these are:

  • Source Citations
  • Event Flexibility
  • Ease of data entry
  • Powerful search routines
  • Rapid access to Editing and other functions
  • Printed Reports


In March of 1992, COMMSOFT was granted a patent for a process we designed into ROOTS III to allow it to automatically manage footnote references in printed reports. While some word processing systems provide for the entry and presentation of source citations, this invention provided an improved method:

  All references to the source citation are presented in the correct format, either long, short, or Ibid., depending on prior use of the citation. And, if the document is reorganized and reprinted, the citations continue to be printed using the correct format. This patented footnoting process was also built into ROOTS IV, the next generation of ROOTS to be developed.


The basic design of the ROOTS database was not changed since the original program was released. The early design was heavily influenced by the capabilities of available hardware. The ROOTS database resided in the computer's random-access memory (RAM) while the program was running to overcome the speed limitations of floppy storage. Because of limited RAM, the data was highly compressed to store a lot of information.

The design of the ROOTS program was innovative and well matched to the available hardware technology. However, both software and hardware technology has changed dramatically since 1981. Competition is considerably different, the tools have improved, and hardware now "pulls" software development rather than the other way around. In October of 1993, we released ROOTS IV Version 1.0.

  ROOTS IV was built on the legacy established by ROOTS III, voted "The Genealogy Software to Beat" for six years by Genealogical Computing Magazine. The capabilities of ROOTS IV go well beyond those of any other genealogy program. Like it's predecessors, ROOTS IV helps to build and preserve a comprehensive family history. It includes an array of features never before available.


A graphic, mouse-compatible user interface makes ROOTS IV easy to use. Pull-down menus spell out the program's powerful functions.

You can:

  • Document every piece of information you gather in your research
  • Weigh each piece of evidence for credibility
  • Enter data without field length constraint
  • Include a virtually unlimited number of people, places and events
  • Accommodate any event that brings your family history to life
  • Connect any number of roles to each event
  • Customize the way reports and footnotes appear
  • Store and retrieve photographs and other illustrations, each
  • identified and linked to individuals, places and sources
  • Incorporate non-traditional family structures, and much more.
  At the National Genealogical Society Conference in June, 1994, ROOTS IV was the only genealogy software program recommended for source documentation by Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA, BA. Ms. Mills is the Editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and Vice-president of the Board for Certification of Genealogists.


As part of the process of adding new features to ROOTS IV 1.1, we developed Event GEDCOM, a new specification for exchanging computerized genealogical data. As a feature of ROOTS IV, Event GEDCOM 1.0 allows lineage- and event-linked genealogy programs to communicate. This specification incorporates features for transferring events, roles, sources and images. Event GEDCOM is designed to be compatible with lineage-linked systems, while providing extensive support for event-oriented systems, such as ROOTS IV and its successors.

  This new specification was released to the genealogy software community in October, 1994 so that other developers could create Event GEDCOM-compatible software and contribute to this new format.

Download Event GEDCOM Specification

Visual ROOTS

In August of 1995 we released Visual ROOTS, our first multimedia genealogy program for Windows. We created this program to offer not only fast and easy data entry, but also the ability to create a professional quality family history book like its ROOTS predecessors.

From its Individual Record window you can: simply fill in the blanks to enter people, events, siblings, spouses, medical histories, media, and various miscellaneous information. A text button opens biographical, footnote, and research notes text windows for each individual and/or event.

  An evidence button opens a window where structured or free form sources can be cited for each individual and/or event. The multimedia features let you add video clips, scan images or documents directly into Visual ROOTS, and even create narrated slide shows for your family reunions.

As an easy-to-use genealogy program that is also full featured and inexpensive, Visual ROOTS was phenomenally popular with our customers. Through Visual ROOTS, we are reaching out to the beginning hobbyist as well as the serious family historian.

Family Gathering 1.0 and Ultimate Family Tree

COMMSOFT and Palladium Interactive teamed to launch the next generation of Visual ROOTS. In this partnership, we combined our genealogical and development experience with Palladium's sales and marketing expertise to bring quality family history software to market.

  In December 1996, COMMSOFT shipped ROOTS V, a full-featured Windows genealogy program.

Palladium purchased the ROOTS product line in May 1997, and chose the name Ultimate Family Tree for their new product. Palladium assumed technical support for the ROOTS products, which was eventually sold to discontinued the ROOTS product line.

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