09/12/2021

080 – Tux the penguin – 1991

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Software is like sex: It’s better when it’s free. Linus Torvalds

Finland is a small country of around 5 million population yet it has a high-tech pedigree.  Nokia is ranked as the 14th most valuable global brand.  The early Norwegian ARPANET node in 1973 gave Scandinavian computer scientists a quick start in networking. 

Jarkko Oikarinen developed internet relay chat, a ‘forerunner’ of Twitter.  Finns developed the Erwise browser.  MySQL was co-developed by Monty Widenius, but the most significant Finn in PC terms is Linus Torvalds.

UNIX was expensive.  Its pricing held little interest for PC users and was a stretch for educational establishments; hence Windows permeated.

Andrew S Tanenbaum, an American-born Dutchman based at the Vrije University Amsterdam in the Netherlands decided to develop a UNIX software clone for the IBM PC.  He announced that he wanted his students to be able to study and work with a ‘real operating system’.

1987 He called this Minix, Mini Unix.  It was based on a BSD UNIX licence, with 5,000 lines of code as its kernel.  It prompted a huge amount of interest and inspired a USENET group that soon had 40,000 subscribers.

Tanenbaum also wrote ‘Operating Systems: Design and Implementation’ and made available 12,000 lines of code written in ‘C’ and assembly languages so programmers could get right to the heart of his software.

A student at the University of Helsinki was using it and sought to make changes so it would not be solely a teaching tool.  However Tanenbaum rejected the idea as out of hand and the student was forced into making a decision.

‘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.  This has been brewing since April, and is starting to get ready.  I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in Minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat…Linus’ posted to the Minix newsgroup 25 Aug 1991.

Linus Torvalds, a 21-year old second-year computer science student, wrote the new kernel using the available GNU tools and issued under the GNU general public licence.  Torvalds called it Freax, a contraction of free, freak and the ‘x’ from UNIX, but the Helsinki University of Technology administrator convinced him to rename it Linux.

The software was released as the copyleft product Linux 0.01 in September 1991.  Torvalds picked a penguin called Tux for its logo and mascot, though apparently in his first encounter with a real penguin he was bitten when he tried to pet it!

Within a few months a hundred programmers were actively communicating with Torvalds via Usenet to contribute fixes and hacks; within a year a fully functioning Linux was ready.

Tanenbaum was unimpressed, ‘Be thankful you are not my student.  You would not get a high grade for such a design.’

In 1993 there were 20,000 Linux users, and by 1994 over 100,000.  The code had grown to consist of some 170,000 lines.  Torvalds did not become a billionaire but he has few complaints,

‘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.’

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