Chapter 18. "Just for Fun"

I frequently point to August 1969 as the "birthmonth" of UNIX. A few days later, the ARPANET (soon to become the Internet) was born. And, on 28 December 1969, Linus Torvalds was born.

I believe each step grew from the earlier one(s).

Where Free Software is concerned, the geographical spread is equally interesting:

Linus was born into the Swedish minority of Finland (about 5% of the 5,000,000 Finns). Linus was a "math guy" throughout his schooling. Early on, he "inherited" a Commodore VIC-20 (released in June 1980) from his grandfather; in 1987 he spent his savings on a Sinclair QL (released in January 1984, the "Quantum Leap," with a Motorola 68008 running at 7.5Hz and 128kB of RAM, was intended for the small business and the serious hobbyist). It ran Q-DOS. And it was what got Linus involved.
One of the things I hated about the QL was that it had a read-only operating system. You couldn't change things...

[Linus] bought a new assembler ... and an editor ... Both ... worked fine, but they were on the microdrives and couldn't be put on the EEPROM. So I wrote my own editor and assembler and used them for all my programming. Both were written in assembly language, which is incredibly stupid by today's standards... [Just for Fun (2001), p. 45]

That was the beginning. A high school student, interested in bettering his system, wrote the tools he wanted.

During his first year at the University, Linus tells us that he did little programming, and at the end of that year, he enlisted in the Finnish army to fulfill his obligation. He was 19. He "got out" on 7 May 1990.

In the fall of 1990, the University of Helsinki installed its first Unix machine, a MicroVAX running Ultrix. But, Linus was "eager to work with Unix by experimenting with what I was learning in Andrew Tanenbaum's book" (p. 53). Linus read all 700-odd pages of Operating Systems. The book "lived on my bed."

One of the things that struck Linus about Unix was its openness. Another was its simplicity. And then came a bolt from the blue: in early 1991, Lars Wirzenius dragged Linus to the Polytechnic University of Helsinki to hear Richard Stallman. "I don't remember much about the talk," Linus says. "But I guess something from his speech must have sunk in. After all, I later ended up using the GPL for Linux."

But on 5 January 1991, Linus got his father to drive to a "mom and pop" computer store, where he had ordered a no-name 4-meg, 33Hz, 386 box, so he could get it home. He was 21. The box came with DOS, but Linus wanted Minix, and ordered it. It took a month to find its way to Finland. But it arrived. And Linus fed the 16 diskettes to the machine. And then he began "playing" with it. The first thing he wrote was a terminal emulator: "That's how Linux got started. With my test programs turning into a terminal emulator."

Because Linus was truly dependent upon the Internet and (specifically) the comp.os.minix newsgroup, we can date events far more accurately than in earlier decades.

We know that Linus' first posting to comp.os.minix, asking about the POSIX standard, was 3 July 1991. And we can see his posting about "doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) ... This has been brewing since April ...," of 25 August 1991.

There was a reasonable expression of interest. We thus know that Linus put what we would now call Linux 0.01 up on the University of Helsinki ftp site on 17 September 1991. "No more than one or two people ever checked it out," he said.

The following January there was discernible growth in the Linux community, leading (I think) to the attack on Linux by Andy Tanenbaum on 29 January 1992 [see next chapter]. Perhaps more important, in the spring Orest Zborowsky ported X-windows to Linux.

The number of Linux users continued to grow, as did the versions of the software. .01 was 63KB compressed. Only a few weeks later, Linus posted .02 on 5 October. On 19 December, v.11 was posted; and on 5 January 1992, v.12 -- 108KB compressed -- appeared. On 7 March, there was v.95 and on 25 May 1992, v.96, with support for X, and taking up 174KB compressed.

It was barely a year since Linus' first posting, but in 1992 SuSE was formed, in February Bruce Parens released MCC Linux, and on 8 December Yggdrasil alpha was released.

1993 began with Yggdrasil beta's release (18 February) and went on to RedHat's being set up by Mark Ewing. August 1993 brought us Debian (from Debbie and Ian Murdoch).

And, on 5 November 1993, Linus spoke at the NLUUG (Netherlands UNIX Users' Group).

On 12 March 1994, Linus released Linux 1.0, basically v0.99, patch level 157. It was the first stable kernel distribution.

I don't want to go into extensive detail here. But I think that there are a number of important points to be made:

Ted T'so was one of the first Linux users in the US. I spoke to him over dinner in Atlanta.
I was working as an undergraduate staff person at MIT -- I was planning to go to graduate school, but I got caught up in projects. So I've got some courses, but no grad degree.

I worked at Athena for three years. For Dan Geer and Jeff Schiller, who were not yet at Kerberos. In '91 I was working on a help desk application, and in the midst of this I discovered Linux.

It was via Usenet. It think .08 or .09 had been cross-posted.

I'll return to Ted's recollections later. The important thing was that thanks to the Internet and to Usenet, the work of a hobbyist in Finland could be picked up elsewhere in Europe, in Australia, and in the US.

"There was fairly strong social cohesion," Ted told me. "Linux was the first big project to succeed in a distributed fashi