By Scott Hamilton

Senior Expert Emerging Technologies

Linux, the most widely used operating system in the world, which happens to be free, had a humble start. Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student, started Linux as a personal project with the goal of creating a new free operating system kernel. The idea behind the project was to replace the very expense Unix kernels of the day with something anyone could get their hands on and use.

The result of his effort that began in 1991 as a small number of source code files in C under a license that prevented commercial distribution to the latest version 5.3 in 2021 with more than 23 million lines of source code, operating under the newly formed GNU General Public License v2.

AT&T was the original company designing the Unix operating systems, but dropped the project after the initial release in 1970. The UNIX operating system was the basis for Operating system research across academia for nearly two decades, until AT&T filed a lawsuit against the University of California for the use of their base kernel in the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) which was being widely used and freely distributed.

Following the lawsuit in 1983 Richard Stallman started the GNU project with the goal of creating a free UNIX-like operating system and drafted the GNU General Public License (GPL) which is the heart and soul of open source software. By the early 1990s there was nearly enough code developed to create a full operating system, but the GNU Kernel “Hurd” failed to attract enough development effort leaving the project incomplete.

In 1987, MINIX , an academic use UNIX-like operating system was released by Andrew S. Tanenbaum. While the source code was available, modification and redistribution was restricted and MINIX was limited to 16-bit platforms, at a time when Intel’s inexpensive 32-bit processors were just coming to market. In the early 1990s a commercial UNIX operating system was too expensive for the average user, and the 16-bit processors were equally expensive to support the free MINIX operating system.

All these factors combined drove Torvalds to start his project to provide a widely adopted free kernel. If either GNU Hurd or 386BSD kernels had been widely available at the time, he would not have written his own.

On August 25, 1991, at age 21, Torvalds announced his kernel to the public, with a few disclaimers. He announced the project on a newsgroup “comp.os.minx”, which hosted a large number of MINIX developers and users. He started the post with “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.” He asked the group for feedback on the likes and dislikes of MINIX.

The Linux kernel did not gain true importance until 1992 when Orest Zborowski ported the X Windows System to Linux, allowing it to support a graphical user interface for the first time. Torvalds struggled with naming the operating system. He originally wanted Freax, a portmanteau of “free”, “freak”, and “x” (as an allusion to Unix). He stored his files under the folder name Freax for about half a year. He had considered “Linux”, but initial felt it was too egotistical. Ari Lemmke at Helsinki University of Technology, who volunteered to provide Torvalds with a server to publicly store the code did not like the name “Freax” and named the project “Linux” on the server without consulting Torvalds. However, since it was not his idea to name to operating system after himself, he consented to the name “Linux” for the first public release, and the rest is history. Until next week stay safe and learn something new.

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