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A Brief History of Linux

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

From Bell Labs in the 1960s to Torvalds in the 90s, find out how this little OS got its start.

Though the birth of Linux didn't occur until 1991, when Finnish college student Linus Torvalds started work on a new and free operating system, its roots go all the way back to the late 1960s at an archetypal research and development facility still known and revered as Bell Labs. Taking a break from building a massive, complex and powerful multi-user OS called MULTICS, Ken Thompson (and later Dennis Ritchie, and eventually a host of others) started working on a simple, minimal OS so he could use it to run a favorite computer game of his at the time, known as Space Travel.

Ultimately, Brian Kernighan (another then-unsung luminary also working at Bell Labs at the time) jokingly referred to Thompson's toy OS as UNICS to contrast its minimal simplicity against the massive complexity of MULTICS. Soon after, it became known as UNIX, and it would set the standard for minicomputer (and even microcomputer) operating systems throughout the 1970s and 1980s. That is until the PC revolution drove different OS designs beneath the UNIX architecture and design philosophy.

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But even by the 1990s, when Torvalds got started on Linux, there were plenty of more serious computing needs for multi-tasking, parallel processing, high-volume computing and so forth, that microcomputer OSes simply couldn't handle.

At the same time, it still remained too expensive to invest in the hardware and software required to do industrial scale computing. Richard Stallman's efforts with Hurd (a GPL licensed patchwork OS that fell shy of completion) failed to reach critical mass, so nobody ever used that platform much, either.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, AT&T tied up many of the major computer makers of the day in litigation based on patents taken out on UNIX, as it moved into System V releases and beyond. Though the famous Berkeley Software Distribution (aka BSD) did much to open up UNIX and make its inner workings visible, intelligible, and infinitely customizable, those same lawsuits ultimately strangled development and adoption of BSD before the end of the twentieth century.

In short, Torvalds had lots of good reason to assemble and promulgate a free and open operating system, and every reason to expect that creditable and usable work in this arena would be rewarded by large-scale participation from other developers, and broad adoption from legions of computer users eager to run a powerful, multi-tasking operating system. And of course, Torvalds understood very well that the implementation had to be new, so that there could be no grounds for AT&T to come at him with its legal artillery blazing away.

Wikipedia attributes this crucial move to Torvalds: "...if either the GNU or 386BSD kernels were available at the time, he likely would not have written his own. But they weren't, so he did write his own kernel, and called it Linux." That kernel has only continued to grow over the years.

In 1996, Torvalds revealed the Linux penguin, Tux, which was reportedly based on a story that Torvalds was bitten by a penguin in Australia.

Today, companies such as Dell and HP sell Linux on their servers. Red Hat and SUSE sell their own enterprise distributions. And Google's popular Android operating system is built on Linux.