Learn Linux 00: History Of Linux

Published Jan 1, 2022

Contents


Introduction

Linux began in 1991 as a personal project by Finnish student Linus Torvalds: to create a new free operating system kernel. The resulting Linux kernel has been marked by constant growth throughout its history. Since the initial release of its source code in 1991, it has grown from a small number of C files under a license prohibiting commercial distribution to the 4.15 version in 2018 with more than 23.3 million lines of source code, not counting comments, under the GNU General Public License v2.

Events Leading To Creation

After AT&T had dropped out of the Multics project, the Unix operating system was conceived and implemented by Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie (both of AT&T Bell Laboratories) in 1969 and first released in 1970. Later they rewrote it in a new programming language, C, to make it portable. The availability and portability of Unix caused it to be widely adopted, copied and modified by academic institutions and businesses.

In 1977, the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) was developed by the Computer Systems Research Group (CSRG) from UC Berkeley, based on the 6th edition of Unix from AT&T. Since BSD contained Unix code that AT&T owned, AT&T filed a lawsuit (USL v. BSDi) in the early 1990s against the University of California. This strongly limited the development and adoption of BSD.

In 1983, Richard Stallman started the GNU project with the goal of creating a free UNIX-like operating system. As part of this work, he wrote the GNU General Public License (GPL). By the early 1990s, there was almost enough available software to create a full operating system. However, the GNU kernel, called Hurd, failed to attract enough development effort, leaving GNU incomplete.

In 1985, Intel released the 80386, the first x86 microprocessor with a 32-bit instruction set and a memory management unit with paging.

In 1986, Maurice J. Bach, of AT&T Bell Labs, published The Design of the UNIX Operating System. This definitive description principally covered the System V Release 2 kernel, with some new features from Release 3 and BSD.

In 1987, MINIX, a Unix-like system intended for academic use, was released by Andrew S. Tanenbaum to exemplify the principles conveyed in his textbook, Operating Systems: Design and Implementation. While source code for the system was available, modification and redistribution were restricted. In addition, MINIX's 16-bit design was not well adapted to the 32-bit features of the increasingly cheap and popular Intel 386 architecture for personal computers. In the early nineties a commercial UNIX operating system for Intel 386 PCs was too expensive for private users.

These factors and the lack of a widely adopted, free kernel provided the impetus for Torvalds' starting his project. He has stated that if either the GNU Hurd or 386BSD kernels had been available at the time, he likely would not have written his own.

The Creation Of Linux

Linux began in 1991 as a personal project by Finnish student Linus Torvalds: to create a new free operating system kernel. The resulting Linux kernel has been marked by constant growth throughout its history.

Linux is the story of how you take back control of your computer.

In the late 1970s, there was a revolution going on. The invention of the microprocessor had made it possible for ordinary people like you and me to actually own a computer. It’s hard for many people today to imagine what the world was like when only big business and big government ran all the computers. Let’s just say, you couldn’t get much done.

Today, the world is very different. Computers are everywhere, from tiny watches to giant data centers to everything in between. In addition to ubiquitous computers, we also have a ubiquitous network connecting them together. This has created a wondrous new age of personal empowerment and creative freedom, but over the last couple of decades something else has been happening. A few giant corporations have been imposing their control over most of the world’s computers and deciding what you can and cannot do with them. Fortunately, people from all over the world are doing something about it. They are fighting to maintain control of their computers by writing their own software. They are building Linux.

Many people speak of “freedom” with regard to Linux, but I don’t think most people know what this freedom really means. Freedom is the power to decide what your computer does, and the only way to have this freedom is to know what your computer is doing. Freedom is a computer that is without secrets, one where everything can be known if you care enough to find out. Freedom is having control.

Why I Don’t Call It “GNU/Linux”

In some quarters, it’s politically correct to call the Linux operating system the “GNU/Linux operating system.” The problem with “Linux” is that there is no completely correct way to name it because it was written by many different people in a vast, distributed development effort. Technically speaking, Linux is the name of the operating system’s kernel, nothing more. The kernel is very important, of course, since it makes the operating system go, but it’s not enough to form a complete operating system.

Enter Richard Stallman, the genius-philosopher who founded the Free Software movement, started the Free Software Foundation, formed the GNU Project, wrote the first version of the GNU C Compiler (gcc), created the GNU General Public License (the GPL), etc., etc., etc. He insists that you call it “GNU/Linux” to properly reflect the contributions of the GNU Project. While the GNU Project predates the Linux kernel and the project’s contributions are extremely deserving of recognition, placing them in the name is unfair to everyone else who made significant contributions. Besides, I think “Linux/GNU” would be more technically accurate since the kernel boots first and everything else runs on top of it.

In popular usage, Linux refers to the kernel and all the other free and open source software found in the typical Linux distribution, that is, the entire Linux ecosystem, not just the GNU components. The operating system marketplace seems to prefer one-word names such as DOS, Windows, macOS, Solaris, Irix, and AIX. I have chosen to use the popular format. If, however, you prefer to use “GNU/Linux” instead, please perform a mental search-and-replace while reading the articles.

References