The Tumultuous Origins of Linux: A Narrative on Identity

The Tumultuous Origins of Linux: A Narrative on Identity

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All computer aficionados worth their weight in salt have some personal experience with Linux. It is ubiquitous throughout the web, running on the servers of giants such as Amazon and Google [The Story of Linux]. However, no other operating system has risen to such prominence through such a precarious and peculiar history as that of Linux. When reviewing the history of Linux there have been distinct events leading to the success of the platform. As with any subject, knowledge of its origin is required before a dissection of its identity can take place. Linux is the premier software for those of us who take interest in observing how each cog fits together in the machine. It is therefore ironic that the history of such a successful operating system platform starts with a failure.

The origin of Linux begins with the collapse of a collaborative software venture amongst MIT, GE, and AT&T’s Bell Telephone Laboratory in 1969. These three institutions were collectively developing a multi-million dollar operating system named Multics (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service), centered on the technique of system time-sharing which would allow multiple users access to the same computer system. Displeased with the cost and underperformance of the Multics project, management at AT&T corp. made the executive decision to cease their involvement in spring of 1969 [Strange Birth & Long Life of Unix]. Two computer scientists who had been tasked with working on Multics from AT&T’s Bell lab were Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie. With his new found free time, Ken Thompson began writing a computer game titled Space Travel, originally on Bell Lab’s GE-645 mainframe computer. Space Travel will inadvertently catalyze the creation of Linux’s parent operating system, UNIX.

The GE-645 mainframe computer is an expensive machine, thus, by association, Space Travel becomes an expensive game to play. A frugal solution to this problem revealed itself as Ken Thompson blew the dust off a decommissioned DEC PDP-7 minicomputer. As a means to remedy the clunky feel of previous versions of the game Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie began to build a barebones operating system to support gameplay on the lab’s PDP-7 machine. The assembly-based operating system required some basic utilities, thus the simple command interpreter shell was written [Harvard]. In 1970, fellow Bell Lab colleague Brian Kernighan suggested they name their operating system as a defiant pun against the quasi-failed Multics software with the name Unics (Un-multiplexed Information and Computing Service) [Strange Birth & Long Live of Unix, Harvard]. The name proved to stick with time; however, the spelling will transition to the shorter UNIX.

It was from here that UNIX became a clandestine development project of the Bell Lab and remained behind-the-scenes until May of 1970, when management footed the project’s bill under the ruse that their research team was creating a sophisticated word processor [Strange Birth & Long Live of Unix]. The research team tricked the bean counters in AT&T’s management into giving them the green light to write something beautiful in 4,200 lines of code which they had already been working on in secrecy. Unix was deemed a success by AT&T’s management just based on its text editing capabilities, with the icing on the cake later being its support of a time-sharing interactive environment for simultaneous multi-user support, achieving what Multics had set out to do and more [Strange Birth & Long Live of Unix]. However, it was not all champagne and congratulations at AT&T.

In 1956 AT&T corp. signed a government agreement that prohibited them from selling products not directly associated with telecommunications or telephones, in exchange for legalization of their monopoly on the telecommunication systems in the United States [Strange Birth & Long Live of Unix]. Thus in 1975 AT&T’s representatives had to showcase their robust UNIX software with smiles through clenched jaws as they had a legal obligation to not sell UNIX as a product. The lack of foresight by a company to notice they’ve pointed a loaded gun at their foot is probably as old as the first informal company, although the existence of today’s open source community can thank AT&T for their inability to portend future business. Because of AT&T’s 1956 government agreement the corporation had a legal obligation not to market UNIX as a product, thus the UNIX source code was released to anyone willing to pay a nominal fee, with no subscription or future support options available from AT&T. Devoid of centralized support, the Usenix user group was formed as the supervising body for UNIX in the US, built upon a “mail in your magnetic tapes of code for bug fixes, please” infrastructure. These early UNIX users were participating in the first UNIX community, which have become ubiquitous with all the major *nix operating system flavors, henceforth [Strange Birth & Long Live of Unix]. UNIX gained prominence through the early 1980s and peaked in the early 1990s around the same time it fell into the lap of 21-year-old Linus Torvalds.

An event of greed took place in 1979 which would establish the software ecosystem into which Linus Torvalds would be motivated to code the Linux kernel. It was during a Usenix Toronto meeting that, according to computer scientist Peter Salus, AT&T representative lawyers announced the $7,500 educational and $40,000 commercial fees for their UNIX System V [Linus launches Linux]. Amongst the disgruntled in attendance was Professor Andrew Tanenbaum of Vriji Universiteit in Amsterdam, who had been using UNIX as an instructional tool for his students. In the spirit of, “Go to Hell then” Professor Tanenbaum decided to write his own abridged version of UNIX which he called Minix (minimal + UNIX) [Linus Launches Linux]. Minix was not a comprehensive operating system; instead it provided a UNIX-like skeleton upon which Professor Tanenbaum’s students were able to learn the ropes. One of these students was Linus Torvalds, who decided to learn the intricate caveats of operating systems by dirtying his own hands with writing one himself. Linus used Minix as a starting point of reference for his own operating system. In 1991, Linus started his work on a project that will later be known as Linux, however the success of Linux is predicated on the fruits of labor of Richard Stallman [Linus Launches Linux].

Richard Stallman was a computer scientist working at MIT in the late 1970s and early 80s where he became persuaded by a philosophy that seemed to draw inspiration from the 1960s ideology of freedom, but instead of applying this aperture to relationships Stallman pointed it towards software. The philosophy is characterized by its strive for free software above all else, where “free software” is maintained according to four axioms

1. Indiscriminant use of available programs
2. All source codes are available and able to accept changes
3. No regulations on software distribution
4. Beneficially modified software versions can be made available to the community

It is in accordance with these morals that Stallman created his UNIX-compatible operating system which he named GNU (GNU’s Not Linux), for which he resigned from his MIT position in 1984 so that the University may make no claim towards GNU’s ownership [Open Source Software A History]. In an effort to maintain GNU as free software, Stallman distributed GNU under its own GNU GPL (GNU General Public License) in 1989 [Open Source Software A History]. By 1991, Stallman and his founded Free Software Foundation had written everything for GNU except the kernel, which is responsible for orchestrating system resources to meet all programming requests [Open Source Software A History]. It was in October of 1991 that Linus Torvalds released his Linux 0.02 kernel to the comp.os.minix newsgroup. Torvalds began integrating the previously programmed utilities of GNU into his Linux operating system, eventually distributing Linux 1.0 under Stallman's GNU General Public License in 1994 [Linus Launches Linux]. Although the numeric naming scheme of these kernels is arbitrary, the latest stable Linux kernel is 4.1.3, and the code has accomplished much throughout its 21 years of revisions and additions [The Kernel Archives].

The pragmatic decision of Torvalds to integrate GNU’s utilities, as opposed to writing his own from scratch, warrants a special level of attention. It seems common sense for Torvalds to make use of the tools that have already been developed for his purposes, however this event is impossible with proprietary software. In the world of closed source proprietary software, Richard Stallman’s previously coded GNU utilities would not have appeared as the transparent, and therefore flexible, utilities that Torvalds saw. Instead these tools would have appeared as opaque black boxes of software, encumbered by their inflexible requirement to only be available for the GNU operating system. And in doing so these tools would deprive themselves of their utility for Torvalds’ purposes. Under the standards of proprietary software these utilities commit suicide for creative programmers looking to utilize them. This is why Richard Stallman gets pissed off with proprietary software. It’s because the utility of the software, its only purpose of serving the user, is sacrificed as a means of its own protection from being tampered with. It is because of this inevitability of proprietary software to commit suicide that the open source community must be valued.

Free software does not mean readily shipped without payment. Free software means that you can use the utility of the software to its full extent. It allows for the utility of that software to remain alive, where the programs are able to receive modification to meet the suited needs of any author. It is from the collaborative and coexistent atmosphere of open source software, which resides somewhere in between Stallman’s idealized totally free software and proprietary software, that Linux’s value is defined.

Linux can be viewed as the crown jewel of open source philosophy, where flexibility of the code allows for its precise utility. Linux is an effort to return to the utility of the software from its litigious barriers, so that when called upon the programs do not ask, “Wait, who owns me?” but instead ask the all more important question of “How can I help?” Proprietary software is difficult to avoid in today’s software ecosystem, and if instructed to do so, Linux will utilize the proprietary tools handed to it. The ability of your Linux operating system to accept proprietary packages is what distinguishes it from being purely free software, to being open source software. This departure from freedom is unfortunate, yet essential for Linux to keep its head above water when trying to stay relevant for the modern user.

Linux is software focused on utility with a pinch of democracy. Linus Torvalds is frequently referenced as operating under the law that, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” [Release Early, Release Often]. With this law, Torvalds is showing his faith in the ability of the open source community to fix problems. This is one resource that Microsoft and Apple cannot afford. All Linux developments are committed holding user empowerment the paramount objective. The open source ecosystem successfully does away with the software development stigma of, “Don’t add all features to this year’s version. Save some for next year so we can count on future profits.” The only thing open source cares about is making the most versatile tool it possibly can while offering the user the most comfortable experience it can. Technical knowledge and computer proficiency are the prices paid by the user for this granularity. A Linux user might have to “” and “make” where a Windows user will double-click and continuously hit “next” until the installation is finished. And although efforts such as the Ubuntu Software Center and Linux Mint are attempts to remove this exclusionary technical threshold, Linux is a computing platform not suited for the masses. It is for the curious and the bold. Linux is here to offer its malleable hand to anyone willing to invest the time to learn how this hand can be shaped into an adroit tool with a precision that Windows and Mac users can’t even dream about. It is here to unlock your hardware.

Software is the vehicle that drives along the roads built by your hardware. Proprietary code represents roadblocks and speed bumps. Experience for yourself just how far your hardware’s silicon roads can take you by installing a Linux distribution.


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