Maximum PC|May 2021
Or how a 21-year-old’s bedroom coding project took over the world and a few other things along the way.
Neil Mohr

LINUX ONLY EXISTS because of Christmas: On January 5, 1991, a 21-year-old computer science student, who was currently living with his mom, trudged through the (we assume) snow-covered streets of Helsinki, with his pockets stuffed full of Christmas gift money. Linus Torvalds wandered up to his local PC store and purchased his first PC, an Intel 386 DX33, with 4MB of memory and a 40MB hard drive. On this stalwart machine he would write the first ever version of Linux. From this moment on, the history of Linux becomes a love story about open-source development, software freedom, and open platforms.

Previous to walking into that computer store, Linus Torvalds had tinkered on the obscure UK-designed Sinclair QL (Quantum Leap) and the far better known Commodore Vic-20. Fine home computers, but neither was going to birth a world-straddling kernel. A boy needs standards to make something that will be adopted worldwide, and an IBM-compatible PC is a good place to start. But we’re sure Torvalds’ mind was focused more on having fun with Prince of Persia at that point than developing a Microsoft-conquering kernel.

Let’s be clear: A 21-year-old, barely able to afford an Intel 386 DX33, was about to start a development process that would support a software ecosystem, which in turn would run most of the smart devices in the world, a majority of the Internet, all of the world’s fastest supercomputers, chunks of Hollywood’s special effects industry, SpaceX rockets, NASA Mars probes, self-driving cars, and whole bunch of other stuff besides. How the heck did that happen?

TO UNDERSTAND HOW Linux got started, you need to understand Unix. Before Linux, Unix was a well-established operating system standard through the 1960s into the 1970s. It was already powering mainframes built by the likes of IBM, HP, and AT&T. We’re not talking small fry, then—they were mega corporations selling around the globe.

If we look at the development of Unix, you’ll see certain parallels with Linux: Freethinking academic types who were given free rein to develop what they want. But whereas Unix was ultimately boxed into closed-source corporatism, tied to a fixed and dwindling development team, eroded by profit margins and lawyers’ fees, groups that followed Linux embraced an open approach, which enabled free experimentation, development, and collaboration on a worldwide scale. Yeah, yeah, you get the point.

Back to Unix, which is an operating system standard that started development in academia at the end of the 1960s as part of MIT, Bell Labs, and AT&T. The initially single or uni-processing OS, spawned from the Multics OS, was dubbed Unics, with an assembler, editor, and the B programming language. At some point, that “c” was swapped to an “x,” probably because it was cooler, dude.

Later, someone needed a text editor to run on a DEC PDP-11 machine. So, the Unix team obliged and developed roff and troff, the first digital typesetting system. Such unfettered functionality demanded documentation, so the “man” system (still used to this day) was created with the first Unix Programming Manual in November 1971. This was all a stroke of luck, as the DEC PDP-11 was the most popular mini-mainframe of its day, and everyone focused on the neatly documented and openly shared Unix system.

In 1973, version 4 of Unix was rewritten in portable C, though it would be five more years until anyone tried running Unix on anything but a PDP-11. At this point, a copy of the Unix source code cost almost $100,000 in current money to license from AT&T, so commercial use was limited during the 1970s. However, moving into the 1980s, costs rapidly dropped, and widespread use at Bell Labs, AT&T, and among computer science students propelled the use of Unix. It was considered a universal OS standard, and in the mid-1980s, the POSIX standard was proposed by the IEEE, backed by the US government. This makes any operating system following POSIX at least partly if not largely compatible with other versions.

At the end of the 1980s, the Unix story got messy, with lots of commercial infighting, competing standards, and closing off of standards, often dubbed Unix Wars. So, while AT&T, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, SCO, and others argued, a certain Finnish boy was about to start university.


Before we dive into the early world of Linux, there’s another part of the puzzle of its success that we need to put in place: the GNU Project, established by Richard Stallman. Stallman was a product of the 1970s development environment, a freethinking, academic, hippy type. One day, he couldn’t use a printer, and because the company refused to supply the source code, he couldn’t fix the issue—supplying source code was quite normal at the time. He went apoplectic and established a free software development revolution: an entire free OS ecosystem, free software license, and philosophy that’s still going strong. Take that, proprietary software!

The GNU Project was established by Stallman in 1983, with GNU being a hilarious (to hackers) recursive acronym for “GNU is Not Unix.” Geddit? Its aim was to establish a free OS ecosystem with all the tools and services a fully functioning OS requires. Bear in mind, most of the tools created then are still used today. By 1987, GNU had established its own compiler, GCC, the Emacs editor, the basis of the GNU Core Utilities (basic file manipulation tools like list, copy, delete, and so on), and a rudimentary kernel. But just as importantly, Stallman had cemented his ideal of software freedom with the “copyleft” GPL software license, and his manifesto setting out the four software freedoms enabling users to run, study, modify, and distribute any software, including the source, for any reason.

The GPL remains the strongest copyleft license, and while it has perhaps fallen out of vogue, it’s still regarded as the best license for true open-source development, and cements most Linux distros. GCC is still an industry standard, Emacs remains a feature-rich development environment, and the GNU Core Utilities are still widely used in certain POSIX systems and most Linux distros.

You could argue that without the GNU Project being established, Linux would never have taken off. The GPL license (adopted early on in Linux development) forces all developers to share back their enhancements to the source code. It’s a feedback loop that promotes shared improvements. Alternative open-source licenses enable corporations to take source code and never share back improvements, meaning the base code is more likely to remain static. This was backed by a generation of developers that grew up studying and using Unix, looking for a truly freed open-source OS to contribute to.


We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Linus Torvalds had his Intel 386, was studying computer science at the University of Helsinki, and was using the MINIX 16-bit OS and kernel. MINIX is a POSIX-compatible Unix-like OS and micro-kernel. In 1991, it had a liberal license, costing just $69, offering the source code but restricted modification and redistribution.

We imagine the 16-bit limitation spurred Torvalds to create his own 32- bit kernel, but he states the license restrictions were also key. So, on August 25, 1991, Linux posted to comp.os.minix that he was developing his own free OS, “nothing professional like GNU,” and it’d only support AT disks, as that’s all he had.


Being the root of evil and all, whenever money is involved, things can turn nasty. So, when the big players in the enterprise and business markets began to see Linux distros as a threat, lawyers were called.

A series of leaked Microsoft memos from August 1998, known as the Halloween Documents for the date they were released, detailed Microsoft’s private worries that Linux, and open-source development in general, was a direct threat to its business, along with ways to combat its uptake. This private view was in direct conflict with the company’s public line on the matter; though Steve Ballmer famously called Linux a cancer in 2001. The documents are available at www.catb.org/~esr/ halloween, and in them Microsoft predicted that “Linux is on track to eventually own the x86 UNIX market….” It was correct.

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