A Brief History of Hackathons


Is Mahatma Gandhi the father of modern hackathons? In July 1929 Mahatma Gandhi organized a Design Contest in India to encourage homegrown textile companies to come out and design a smaller, more portable spinning wheel. He took the winning design to jail! Although not listed as the origin of the modern hackathon, this represents an early recorded history of a challenge being thrown at people, to create a new product. Fast forward to the world’s foremost cricketing body, the ICC launching its ICC-Nium “Next In” hackathon, to engage fans even more with their favorite sport. Whether they be marathons, cyclothons, or hackathons, events to engage talent and fans are gaining popularity because of the tangible benefits they offer. 

Hackathons are events where developers, designers, and other tech enthusiasts come together to collaborate on creating new software, apps, or other digital projects. They are typically intense and fast-paced events where participants work in teams to build something from scratch over a set period, often ranging from 24 to 72 hours.

The concept of the hackathon, also referred to as a hack day or hack fest, was created by the open-source community.  Niels Provos coined the phrase “hackathon” by literally fusing the words “hack” and “marathon,” where “hack” denotes exploratory programming. 

The first-ever hackathon was conducted by  OpenBSD. It was a cryptographic development conference in June 1999, which brought together about 10 developers to explore how to prevent legal issues caused by US export laws governing cryptographic software.  Around the same time, OpenBSD participants along with Sun Microsystems also organized the JavaOne Conference called the “John Gage Challenge” where attendees were challenged to write a Java program for the new Palm V, a personal digital assistant (PDA). 

However, it wasn’t until 2005 that hackathons began to gain popularity as a way for companies and organizations to encourage innovation and collaboration among their employees and the wider community. The SHDH SuperHappyDevHouse was created as a non-exclusive event intended for creative and curious people interested in technology- it was an early version of modern networking. The event expanded globally in 2008. This hackathon was a pure community event. Big companies like SocialText also entered the fray in 2005; anyone who wrote code or used the Internet was part of the fest and it was quite different from traditionally organized, opaque, pre-scheduled industry gabfests that used to dominate the tech space. 

In 2004, the first external hackathon was held by the social networking site LinkedIn. This event was called “InDays” and was a 24-hour hackathon that allowed employees to work on projects outside of their normal job responsibilities. The success of this event led to other tech companies such as Facebook and Google hosting their own hackathons.

It was Yahoo!’s Hack Day in September 2006, which is known as the first branded Hackathon. It was an internal event where only engineers and developers from the company came together within the corporate campus to generate useful applications around Yahoo.

In 2010, the first Startup Weekend was held in Boulder, Colorado. This event was a 54-hour hackathon that focused on building new startups from scratch. Startup Weekend events have since been held all over the world and have been instrumental in launching many successful startups.

Since then, hackathons have become a global phenomenon, with events taking place in cities around the world. The big change was that other industries like healthcare, education, social entrepreneurship, and sports, also realized the benefits of a hackathon. New applications for Blockchain and Web 3.0 to create more inclusivity and engagement across platforms have been a key focus. Even the Masterchef program can be potentially seen as a hackathon- a deployment of skills from people of diverse backgrounds to create something new. 

Many successful products and companies have been born out of hackathon projects, such as 

  1. Carousell (an app to sell unwanted household clutter)
  2. EasyTaxi (bus monitoring app)
  3. TalkDesk ( cloud-based call center solution).

They are also seen as a way to promote diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, as they provide a platform for individuals from different backgrounds and skill sets to come together and collaborate on projects. In the last decade, the application of hackathons to sports seems to be on the rise. Wimbeldon has been organizing annual hackathons to invite innovations, and drive fan engagement. In 2016, the world’s most prestigious tennis grand slam hosted a cycle of innovation at the All England Lawn Tennis Club with IBM, to improve ticket resale and virtual queuing for the championships. In another recent announcement, The world’s most talented data scientists are set to face off to develop the best statistical and AI model to predict where the game’s best tennis players will hit their next serve as part of the 2023 AO Data Slam. Exciting times are ahead for fans. 

The March 2023 ICC-Nium “Next In” hackathon for instance could take cricket to countries where it is not played at all, says Jeremiah Glodoveza, the architect of the ‘ICC-Nium Next In Hackathon and SVP, Global Head of Marketing and Communications at Nium.  “We are hoping to see some incredible ideas, including new applications for artificial intelligence in statistical analysis, through to modernizing payment systems for fans using mobile devices,” he says. 

Hackathons are likely to remain a fixture of the tech and startup communities in the foreseeable future. Interestingly enough, it is the application of modern technologies like AR/VR, Blockchain and Web3 that is the focus. The day may not be far when hackathons are made a spectator sport so that people know about new innovations.