The Complete Concise History of GNU/Linux

November 17, 2005
There are reams and reams written about the history of Linux umpteen times by many. So why another post on the history of Linux? I felt that I wouldn't be doing justice if this site dedicated to Linux didn't have atleast one post telling how Linux evolved from a project started by a university student to the robust OS it is now. But as the title indicates, I have kept it really short so that any one can come up-to-date by just glancing through it. To actually know the whole history, you have to go all the way back to 1971.
  • In June 1971, Richard Matthew Stallman joined MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory as a programmer where he gained popularity with the hacker community and came to be known by his now popular name RMS. At that time, all the programmers used to share their code freely among each other cutting across various institutions.

Fig: Richard Mathew Stallman - The Father of GNU Movement
  • In 1980, with the advent of portable software - ie software that can be compiled to run on different computers, a business model emerged where in, the companies developing the code refused to share the code with their clients and began restricting copying and redistribution of their software by copyrighting it.
  • In response to this trend, Stallman, who believed in the principle that software has to be free always, founded the Free Software Foundation and in 1985, published the GNU Manifesto. This manifesto outlined his motivation for creating a free OS called GNU, which would be compatible with Unix. By the way, GNU is a recursive acronym for GNU is Not Unix. He along with a group of like minded programmers started work in developing the tools needed to make a complete OS - like an editor (Emacs), a C compiler (GCC), libraries and all associated generic Unix tools like cat,ls, chmod etc.
  • In the same year (1985), a professor by name Andy Tanenbaum wrote a Unix like Operating system from scratch based on System V standards POSIX and IEEE for the Intel i386 platform. He named it Minix.
Fig: Prof. Andy Tanenbaum - Creator of Minix OS
  • In 1989, Stallman released the first program independent GNU General Public Licence now popularly known as GPL or copyleft. Not only that, he published all his work under this licence. Now the only thing that GNU lacked was a completely free OS kernel. Even though work was going on in developing HURD which was to fill that gap, the progress was slow.
  • In 1990, A finnish student by name Linus Torvalds studying in the University of Helsinki came into contact with Andy Tanenbaum's OS, Minix. Linus wanted to upgrade Minix by putting in more features and improvements. But he was prohibited by Tanenbaum to do so. Then Linus decided to write his own kernel and released it under GPL. This kernel is now popularly known as Linux.
Fig: Linus Torvalds - Father of Linux
  • After 1997, a programming model other than the GPLed model emerged which is now popularly known as the Open Source Initiative. Bruce Perens is credited for creating the Open Source definition - the manifesto of the Open Source movement in software. Eric.S.Raymond another hacker became one of the prominent voice in this movement. But he is more known for his very popular essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" which has since been published as a hard cover book by O'Reilly.
Fig: Bruce Perens - Cofounder of Open Source Initiative

Fig: Eric S Raymond

Fig: Alan Cox - Has made major contributions in coding the Linux Kernel.

Fig: Jon Maddog Hall - Another leader of the Open Source movement.

Popular Linus Speak
  • If you want to travel around the world and be invited to speak at a lot of different places, just write a Unix operating system.
  • An infinite number of monkeys typing into GNU emacs would never make a good program.
  • Making Linux GPL'd was definitely the best thing I ever did.
  • Really, I'm not out to destroy Microsoft. That will just be a completely unintentional side effect. (NewYork Times Interview)
Popular Richard Stallman Speak
  • When you are talking about Linux as a OS, you should refer to it as GNU/Linux. Linux is just the kernel. All the tools that make Linux an OS has been contributed by GNU movement and hence the name GNU/Linux.
  • I could have made money this way, and perhaps amused myself writing code. But I knew that at the end of my career, I would look back on years of building walls to divide people, and feel I had spent my life making the world a worse place. (On why he decided against writing propritery software).
  • Fighting patents one by one will never eliminate the danger of software patents, any more than swatting mosquitoes will eliminate malaria. (While talking on how to fight software patents - singly and together).
  • If anything deserves a reward, it is social contribution. Creativity can be a social contribution, but only in so far as society is free to use the results.
  • If you want to accomplish something in the world, idealism is not enough--you need to choose a method that works to achieve the goal. In other words, you need to be "pragmatic."
  • We don't think of the Open Source movement as an enemy. The enemy is proprietary software.
  • I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it.
  • People sometimes ask me if it is a sin in the Church of Emacs to use vi. Using a free version of vi is not a sin; it is a penance. So happy hacking.
  • Value your freedom or you will lose it, teaches history. 'Don't bother us with politics', respond those who don't want to learn.
Popular Raymond speak
  • Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.
Popular Tanenbaum speak
  • LINUX is obsolete (In a Usenet message in 1992)
  • Be thankful you are not my student. You would not get a high grade for such a design. Writing a new OS only for the 386 in 1991 gets you your second 'F' for this term. (To Linus Torvalds).
  • Microkernels are not a pipe dream. They represent proven technology.
  • While most people can talk rationally about kernel design and portability, the issue of free-ness is 100% emotional.
Little known facts about Linus Torvalds
  • Linus wanted to name his OS Freax instead of Linux.
  • Linus is known as the 'Benevolent dictator for life' of Linux kernel.
  • Linus's parents were both left wing campus radicals. His father was a communist who spent a year studying in Moscow.
You and Me - We all form a part of the Linux history.
As you can see from the figure above, the ordinary users of Linux form the base of the Linux pyramid. If the user base disappears, the whole pyramid crumbles. So if you are a linux user, then you can boast to your kids, grandkids and great grandkids (if you are still alive ;) ) about the role you played in shaping the history of this wonderful OS.


  • very nice compilation

  • pictures looks a little screwy

  • Wow, I'm the 4th person to read this to the end!

  • Hey that was nice and the article...well good to know that people who are found of linux can speak simple too...keep it up...

  • Simon Pole

    Heh, that's really nice. Especially that part about Linux users. You put the feeling into words.

  • One of the Greatest Article I ever seen.........
    So many many Thanks.........

  • Thanks for the article. That you have a passion for your topic is clear.

  • "Stallman, who believed in the principle that software has to be free always"

    You should make clear what is meant by "free". People will assume money-wise free.

  • Groovy Gravy, ya gotta love GNU/Linux

    Thanks to all the wonderfull people that made GNU/Linux possible, to them I offer a Laurel & Hardy handshake :^)

  • Very nice article indeed.


    PS: You have a little typo under Linus' picture. you forgot an s ;)

  • Nice article, but what about Bruce Perens? He deserves a mention for helping come up with the Open Source Definition :o)

  • sonofdelphi

    Tanenbaum forebade,
    Linus obeyed.
    Fiat Linux!
    Freedom redux.

    - Thomas Jay Cubb

  • One thing that I thought should have been noted was when you said, "Linus wanted to upgrade Minix by putting in more features and improvements", I was always under the impression that the primary reason that drove Linus to write Linux was because minix was a 16bit 286 only kernel that did not suppor the 386... Or am I mistaken here?

  • I believe that your pyramid diagram should include both GNU and GCC in large letters.

    Othwerwise a very nice piece. :-)

  • if you are starting all the way back in '71, you might as well throw in a bit about ken and dmr at bell labs in '69, how they sent their source all around and spread UNIX all about before the telco lawyers got greedy...

  • cyber_rigger

    You might mention Stallman's conflict with Gosling over Emacs.
    This is what got the ball rolling.
    (see paragraph 3)

  • Russell

    Wow. What an amazing piece of crap. First, you should compare RMS to the Irish monks who kept Western knowledge alive during the Dark Ages. Just as they didn't create all that knowledge, RMS didn't create Linux, or even much of GNU. He wrote a very small amount of the code in Linux; certainly NOT enough to dictate that Linux should be called GNU. RMS is a hero for carrying the FLOSS torch, to be sure, but he wasn't the only person doing so.

    Second, even before RMS wrote the GPL, Berkeley was distributing BSD (they're the B in BSD) licensed software. OSI didn't create this programming model. We're not a counterpart of GPLed software, because the GPL is an OSI approved license. We (I'm a board member of OSI) don't even HAVE a programming model. We promote Open Source, which is just a marketing term for free software. Microsoft uses "Free Software" to describe their zero-cost software, but you'll notice that they call their not-quite-open-source software "Shared Source".

  • wow.. now i'm not very good looking either... but those dudes look like they belong in the Howard Stern whack-pack!

  • U.A

    I have not said that RMS is the only person who constituted the GNU movement. Infact If you read the above post, I have written ...

    He along with a group of like minded programmers started work in developing the tools needed to make a complete OS - like an editor (Emacs), a C compiler (GCC), libraries and all associated generic Unix tools like cat,ls, chmod etc.

    Of course as you said, GNU movement is the outcome of the efforts of a lot of other people besides RMS. But since he is the most public face of the GNU movement, everyone recognises him as the person who spearheaded the free software movement.

    Thanks for the insight into the open source initiative.

  • I really enjoy all this!!!

    Being one of the user base, thank you for mentioning us!

    Freedom Sancho,...

  • mattions

    Really really interesting :)

    The thing needed to keep on touch with the present time in short.

    Many thanks.. maybe really usefull for a lot of people :)

  • Neat article! I like it a lot, except, like someone said before, the pictures are a bit scary.

  • Chris

    There was a version of Minix for 386, but since Minix was not free, it could not be distributed in complete form. You had to buy Minix, and then apply huge patches. It was very awkward, so when the linux kernel came out and you did not have to jump through hoops like this, it was a big win.

    You ought to link to some of the source documents, like this one.

  • As caricatural as creationism, stalinian and scientenlogist propaganda.

    This kind of pretentious and ignorant bigotry is the reason why linux
    has trouble to getting mainstream. Should I kiss the feet of Eric Raymond? Gimme a break.

    According to that zealot, Unices were born out of nothing
    from the brain of Andrew Tannenbaun and Linus Torvalds; the Open Source movement
    is reduced to GNU?

    Many names are missing without wich this history is meaningless,
    To cite a few: Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, Bill Joy as programmers.
    Tim O'Reilly as propagandist.
    This is not reducing the merit of Linus and Richard to place them
    in a honest perspective.

    Please read and

  • thank god for the 'images off' option in Opera !

  • @Anonymous above

    Can't you read the heading of the post? It says "A complete concise history of gnu/linux" . Ken thompson and dennis ritchie are related to Unix and not GNU or Linux. And if the author includes all the names related to GNU movement, it wouldn't be concise would it ? He has given more open source leaders than GNU leaders.

    I for one really enjoyed reading this post. It is informative.
    Kudos to the author for compiling this article.

  • "thank god for the 'images off' option in Opera !"

    How can your opera control my konqueror

  • Thanks for the nice article.

  • RAH!RAH! Linux! DIE! DIE! MS!

  • What a great concise chronological synopsis of the whole Linux movement up until now. I knew bits and pieces but it is really cool to see it all in one place.

  • I am a 15-year fulltime (unix/linux user web developer/programmer), who lives in vi every day (sorry rms - i love you just the same!) This is a really great article. I love the tone as well as the information. I'm now in India introducing Tibetan-exile young folks to linux, and will be pointing my students to this! Thank you.

  • great...
    so minix was written from scratch...interesting

    by the way you could have quote the minix mailing list,because all your quote from andy tannerbaun comes from there:

  • john6.

    Very nice to read the pre Linus hisory. The story was well documented.
    It must be dificult to write such an article not to offend all those who are aware of supporters not named in the article.

    Well done.

  • hai its veryt nice to know abt unknown facts abt linux...any way thanks for the precious information...
    suggestion:it would have been better if this post contains a time line of linux history..

  • Thanks for the brief history, very informative and nicely written. I like the quotes too.

  • Gaurav

    Good Compilation.
    However, I would like to point out that free must be mentioned as "free as in freedom and not as in beer".

  • Unknown

    thanks man .
    good source of linux history
    really appreciated that :)

  • I love linux/GNU/bash/X/KDE..... (and earn a living from them)

    But what's with all the beards?

  • You have to have a beard and peferably long hair to be a true computer geek. There's no time to cut hair or shave between: coding, getting coffee, coding, drinking beer, coding, and sleep every couple of days.

  • Good day everyone!
    I am delighted to be aquainted with this article. It's a big help for me and to all my students taking up linux basics.
    Many have been posted in the net regarding linux history and sometimes you'll be lost. Thanks to this one which presented the Concise GNU/Linux history that made it easier to all those studying it.

  • Tannebaum sounds like every pompous self-impressed prof I've ever studiously tried to avoid. Selfish little prig - here was a brilliant kid (Torvalds) trying to learn as much as he could, and this jerk gives him a virtual "F"?

    Probably a lot like Thomas Alva Edison's teachers, don't you think?

    Wonderful reading. Thanks for all the info. May all profs like Tannenbaum rot in 'professor-wanna-be' Hades. They devote their lives to killing initiative and brilliance.

    Linus, rock on.

  • John Ortiz OrdoƱez

    Hello! Excellent information. I like the Pyramid. The people that appears in this documents are great. Thank you!