Linux – A Brief History

The other day I was wondering what is it that makes Linux popular. Although I’ve been using Linux for over a decade, only now I decided to look back and see how Linux got into being. What follows is my understanding of Linux’s history.

Sometime in the 1960s, Bell Labs and MIT were working on a timesharing OS they called Multics. Soon Bell Labs pulled out of it thinking it wasn’t going anywhere. Ken Thompson – a programmer at Bell Labs at the time – decided to create his own OS based on Multics. By 1969, a team led by Ken Thompson had a decent OS running on a PDP-7 machine. They called it Unix.

Around 1972, Dennis Ritchie invented C, and soon made it possible to write Unix in C! This was unprecedented. Until then, all OSs were written in assembly and custom-made for the hardware it came with. To make it possible to write an OS in C meant being able to write an OS for any hardware that had a C compiler available. Unix was successfully ported on different kinds of hardware and that made it highly popular.

Ken Thompson spent a couple years at University of California at Berkeley, and out of there came another flavor of Unix called BSD. AT&T had its own they called System V. There were many other implementations of ‘Unix’ with extensions and that necessitated a need for standardization (one such standard is IEEE’s POSIX specification).

While all this was happening in Universe A, Universe B had a different stew brewing. Richard Stallman – a programmer at MIT – wasn’t happy with the state-of-affairs with the Unix business. Long story short, he wanted it free. Free as in being able to modify software. Stallman was a hacker, and what’s a hacker without the source code. He set out to launch his GNU project that aimed at creating a free Unix-like OS, because Unix wasn’t free. This project resulted in a lot of open-source software, but lacked a kernel. Linus Torvalds – a university student from Helsinki – created a Unix-like kernel for free use, and invited others to contribute. Soon the project gained momentum, and combined with the GNU project, a full-fledged Unix-like system was born, called Linux.


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