Aug. 25, 1991: Kid From Helsinki Foments Linux Revolution
From Wired.com, 24 August, 2009.
- By Randy Alfred
1991: Linus Torvalds, a 21-year-old university student from Finland, writes a post to a user group asking for feedback on a little project he’s working on. He’s built a simple kernel for a Unix-like operating system that runs on an Intel 386 processor, and he wants to develop it further. The kernel eventually becomes Linux, which is released in 1994 and distributed over the internet for free.
Thousands of contributors began refining the Linux kernel and the operating system built on top of it. Linux went on to become, arguably, the biggest success story of the free-software movement, proving that the work of thousands of volunteers can create a piece of free software as powerful as one sold by any corporation.
In the early 1980s, the Unix operating system was already in widespread use throughout academia and businesses for both servers and workstations. It was being rapidly developed and deployed. Unix code could be made to run on hundreds of different types of computer hardware. This high level of portability was integral to its popularity.
But as it grew more complex, Unix (and its many Unix-like cousins) became increasingly saddled by licensing fees. Demand began to rise for a free operating system, something as powerful and flexible as Unix, that could be distributed and modified openly and freely without the encumbrance of commercial licenses.
To that end, Richard Stallman, a programmer at MIT, founded the GNU Project in 1984. Stallman and his collaborators began assembling the various pieces of a free operating system that would be compatible with Unix, strictly adhering to the idea that software should be not only be freely available, but also give its users the ability to freely experiment with its inner workings.
A few years later, the GNU team (the name is a recursive acronym for “GNU’s Not Unix”) had created several of the building blocks of an OS, but a few of the key components, including a kernel — the master control program essential to an operating system — remained incomplete. The project was stalled.
In 1991, Linus Torvalds was a student at the University of Helsinki. He had written some software that would enable his new workstation, a PC powered by a 386 processor, to access the university’s Unix servers.
Torvalds’ simple terminal emulator was based on Minix, a Unix-like operating system that worked on many different computer hardware platforms and was widely used in academia as a teaching tool. Torvalds kept tinkering, and before long he had created a working operating system kernel.
Torvalds had borrowed none of Minix’s code, but he had adopted much of its architecture, including its file system. So, he enlisted hackers from the Minix community to help him flesh out his project.
On August 25, 1991, Torvalds posted a note to the comp.os.minix Usenet group titled, “What would you like to see most in minix?“:
Hello everybody out there using minix —
I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).
I’ve currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40), and things seem to work. This implies that I’ll get something practical within a few months, and I’d like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won’t promise I’ll implement them :-).
PS. Yes — it’s free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs. It is NOT protable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that’s all I have :-(.
In a follow-up post, Torvalds asserted that his operating system “probably won’t be able to do much more than minix, and much less in some respects,” and that it would be free “probably under gnu-license or similar.”
Unlike his initial announcement, Torvalds’ follow-up post contained no emoticons.
From these humble beginnings, a full operating system kernel would emerge. The first version was called Freax, a name chosen by Torvalds because it incorporated elements of “free” and “freak” — the “x” at the end is a common attribute of the names of many Unix-like systems. But when the source code files were posted to the FTP servers at the Helsinki University of Technology, the sysop renamed the kernel “Linux” in honor of its creator.
The first version of Linux, released in late 1991, was published with its own license. But since several pieces of GNU software were required to run the Linux kernel, Torvalds eventually relented and published Linux version 0.99 under the GNU Public License in December 1992. The change made Linux fully compatible with the rest of GNU’s software, and the GNU Project began integrating the kernel — the project’s biggest missing link — into its free operating system.
Linux 1.0, the first fully-baked version of the GNU Project’s operating system, was released in March of 1994. It was quickly ported to multiple platforms and was updated to include support for multiprocessor installations. By the late 1990s, Linux had grown into a major force in the server space, ending Unix’s dominance within corporations and becoming the biggest threat to Microsoft’s commercial-server-software business.
The Linux Foundation, a nonprofit group chartered with the task of promoting Linux and fostering its development, estimates the Linux ecosystem will reach the $50 billion mark by 2011, as the software continues to make inroads on PC desktops, netbooks, servers, mobile phones and embedded devices like TV set-top boxes, GPS units, and media players.
Now, the Linux kernel is kept up to date by thousands of programmers from around the world. Most of them are volunteer contributors or work under the sponsorship of corporations like IBM, HP and Intel. Torvalds himself is now sponsored by the Linux Foundation and continues to work on the Linux kernel full-time.
In other words, it’s no longer “just a hobby.”
Image: Linus Torvalds/GFDL. Permission of Martin Streicher, editor-in-chief, LinuxMag.com