A Brief History of Linux

Linux origin can be traced back to the 70s of the 20th century. Its starting point began from the first release of Unix operating system in 1969 by Bell Laboratories, subsidiary of AT & T in the U.S. Unix has become the basic one for a large number of industrial-grade operating systems. The most basic of them showed on this timescale:

Linux is mostly indebted to two projects - GNU and Minix.


imageThe story of the GNU project started in September 1983. The founder of GNU project, Richard M. Stallman worked at that time in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Stallman is considered as one of the most leading programmers of these days.

Stallman has belonged to the environment, where it was appropriate freely to share the programs and source codes, and the Unix license from AT & T cost $ 40 000 dollars. Therefore, only big companies could afford to buy it, and without that license the programmers did not have the right to use the system source codes in their projects. This impeded the exchange of ideas in the field of programming and strongly hampered the process of creating programs, because rather than to adopt a ready-made piece of code for solving some task, the software developer was forced to write this piece of code again, which is akin to reinvention the wheel.

Stallman decided to change this situation in programming. In 1983, he announced the beginning of development of GNU project for the purpose to create a completely open source operating system:
Thursday, September 27, 1983, 12:35:59 EST

Free Unix!

Starting this Thanksgiving I am going to write a complete Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for Gnu's Not Unix), and give it away free(1) to everyone who can use it. Contributions of time, money, programs and equipment are greatly needed.

To begin with, GNU will be a kernel plus all the utilities needed to write and run C programs: editor, shell, C compiler, linker, assembler, and a few other things. After this we will add a text formatter, a YACC, an Empire game, a spreadsheet, and hundreds of other things. We hope to supply, eventually, everything useful that normally comes with a Unix system, and anything else useful, including on-line and hardcopy documentation.

GNU will be able to run Unix programs, but will not be identical to Unix. We will make all improvements that are convenient, based on our experience with other operating systems...

GNU, which stands for Gnu's Not Unix. Unix has always been non-free software, that is, it denies its users the freedom of cooperation, as well as control over their computers (like Windows these days). A little later, Stallman wrote his famous Manifest GNU, which became the basis for the license GPL (GNU General Public License). The role of this license cannot be re-evaluated, because it changed the whole computer industry.

The main idea of GPL is that user must have the following four rights (or four freedoms):

• The right to run the program for any purposes (freedom #0);
• The right to learn the software structure and adapt it to the needs (freedom #1), which implies access to the source code of software;
• The right to distribute the program, having the opportunity to help others (freedom #2);
• The right to improve the program and to release the improvements for the benefit of the community (freedom #3), which also implies access to the source code of software.

The software that is being distributed under this license can be used at will, copied, modified, altered, transferred or sold the modified (or unmodified) versions to other people on conditions that the result of such rework will also be distributed under the GPL. The last condition is the most important and decisive in this license. It ensures that the results of the developers’ efforts of free software will remain open and become part of a licensed product in the usual way. It also distinguishes free software from the software that is distributed free of charge. One of the requirements of this license is that when seller sells software under the GPL the source codes of this software must be provided to anyone who wants to access them. License GPL makes this software free and ensures that it remains free".

By 1990, within the scope of GNU project were created majority components needed for the functioning of a free operating system. In addition to the Emacs text editor, Stallman created the compiler gcc (GNU C Compiler) and debugger gdb. Being an outstanding programmer, Richard Stallman alone was able to create an efficient and reliable compiler, which outperforms in qualities the products of other commercial providers that were created by whole groups of programmers. Now there are versions of the compiler for virtually all operating systems. Later the compilers were created for other programming languages including C + +, Pascal and Fortran. So now the abbreviation of GCC stands for GNU Compiler Collection.

According to Richard Stallman, "By 1990, the GNU system was almost complete, lacking only one of the basic components - the kernel". It was expected that the kernel (it is called GNU Hurd) will be implemented as a set of server processes running on Mach - a microkernel created by a Carnegie Mellon University and then at the University of Utah. Development start was delayed pending the release of Mach, which will be released as free software. But its release still was delayed, and there appeared a kernel developed by Finnish student, Linus Torvalds that is called Linux. Linus created it in an attempt to improve his home operating system Minix, which is worth mentioning separately.


During the 1990s, personal computers that were based on Intel microprocessors and equipped with operating systems from Microsoft have taken a dominant position in the desktop market and also captured a significant share of the server market - the traditional scope of the Unix-based systems. Computers based on Intel and Intel-compatible processors have reached the processing power comparable to the power of workstations with Unix. But most commercial Unix-based systems did not have versions capable to run on Intel hardware. Manufacturers of Unix usually work closely with manufacturers of specific processors or even had a share of ownership in the companies that manufactured these processors, and so they were interested in using their own developments. Examples are the SGI and MIPS processors.
imageAs hardware capabilities of PCs were growing rapidly, it was natural that sooner or later would have been released Unix alternatives for computers based on Intel-compatible processors. One of such Unix-like operating system alternatives, which played an important role in the history of Linux, was developed in January 1987 by Andrew S. Tanenbaum, a professor of computer science at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Tanenbaum was one of the leading experts in the field of operating systems. His operating system Minix he developed as a tutorial, which showed his students the real internal structure of the operating system.

Of course, Minix operating system was not the pink of perfection. It was oriented to the microprocessor Intel 80286, which dominated the market at that time. However, it had one very important quality - open source codes. Anyone who happened to get the book 'Operating Systems: Design and Implementation' by Tanenbaum could get hold of the 12,000 lines of code, written in C and assembly language. For the first time, an aspiring programmer or hacker could read the source codes of the operating system, which to that time the software vendors had guarded vigorously. A superb author, Tanenbaum captivated the brightest minds of computer science with the elaborate and immaculately lively discussion of the art of creating a working operating system. Students of Computer Science all over the world pored over the book, reading through the codes to understand the very system that runs their computer. And one of them was Linus Torvalds.


imageIn 1991, Linus Benedict Torvalds, a Finnish student became interested in the idea to write kernel compatible with the Unix operating system for his PC with a Intel processor. The prototype for the future kernel became Minix operating system: Unix-compatible operating system for personal computers, which was loaded from floppy disks and fit in very limited memory of a PC at the time.
In August 25, 1991 the historic post was sent to the MINIX news group by Linus Torvalds…

From: [email protected] (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
Newsgroups: comp.os.minix
Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?
Summary: small poll for my new operating system
Message-ID: <[email protected]>
Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT
Organization: University of Helsinki

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, andI'd like to know what features most people would want. Any
suggestions are welcome, but I won't promise I'll implement them :-)

Linus ([email protected])

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 :-(.

Here is how a new system got the “Linux” title. Torvalds was confused by a consonance of this title with his name, so he tried to call his creation Freax. This title could be found in the file kernl/Makefile 0.11 and the source codes of other programs. But Ari Lemmke, who gave place for the system to post on the FTP site, called the directory pub/OS/Linux, and therefore, that title got assigned to the new OS.

The fact that Linus posted his code for OS on the internet was decisive in the future of Linux, although in 1991, the internet was not so widespread as today, but then it was used mainly by people with sufficient technical training. Torvalds got already several interested responses from the very beginning.

Around February 1992, Linus asked anyone who had used or tested Linux to send him a postcard. Hundreds of such cards were received from all over the world (New Zealand, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United States). This showed that Linux had started to get some popularity.
And work went on. Soon more than a hundred people joined the Linux camp, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands. This was no longer a hacker’s toy. Powered by a plethora of programs from the GNU project, Linux was ready for the actual showdown. It was licensed under GNU General Public License, thus ensuring that the source codes will be free for all to copy, study and to change. Students and computer programmers grabbed it.

Soon, commercial vendors moved in. Linux itself was, and is free. The vendors did compiled up various software and gathered them in a distributable format, more like the other operating systems with which people were more familiar. Red Hat, Caldera, and some other companies gained substantial amount of response from the users worldwide. While these were commercial ventures, dedicated computer programmers created their very own volunteer-based distribution, the famed Debian. With the new Graphical User Interfaces (like X-window System, KDE, GNOME) the Linux distributions became very popular.

Originally, Linus Torvalds did not want to sell his creation, as well he did not want someone else to sell it too. This was clearly stated in acknowledgments and copyright, placed in the file COPYING of the very first version - 0.01. Linus imposed much tighter restrictions on the distribution of Linux, than those stated in the GNU license: It was prohibited to charge any money for transfer or use of Linux. But in February of 1992, some people asked him to give the permission to charge fees for the distribution of floppy disks with Linux in order to cover the time and cost for the floppy disks. In addition, it was necessary to consider the fact that when creating Linux was used a variety of freely available tools on the internet, and the most important of them was the GCC compiler. The copyrights for GCC were specified in the General Public License GPL, invented by Richard Stallman. Torvalds had to revise his copyright, and starting from the version of 0.12 he also switched over to usage of the GPL.

The journey of Linux from a hacking project to globalization has been more like an evolutionary experience. The GNU Project, started in the early 1980's by Richard Stallman, laid the foundation for the development of open source software. Prof. Andrew Tanenbaum's Personal Computer operating system Minix brought the study of operating systems from a theoretical basis to a practical one. And finally, Linus Torvald's endless enthusiasm for perfection gave birth to Linux. Throughout the last couple of years, hundreds of thousands of people forming global community nurtured it and brought it to its glorious place in the annals of the computer revolution. Today Linux is not just another student's hacking project, and it is a worldwide phenomenon bringing together huge companies and the countless millions of people throughout the world in the spirit of the open source software movement. In the history of computing, it will forever remain as one of the most amazing endeavors of human achievement.

P.S. History is always boring, but history of Computing and that of Linux are very interesting. Much of the source of this article has been taken from the Internet. It was inspired by the questions asked by many users all over the world. Thanks to all!
MeLavi 22 january 2012, 12:31
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