Linus Torvalds and the history of free software: from Unix to Linux

Late sixties – early seventies: the UNIX operating system is being developed in AT&T Bell Labs, written with C programming bases. Subsequently, the entire operating system will be rewritten by Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie in C language to facilitate porting and the maintenance. With this kind of background Unix has become the most trusted operating system for business administrators, educational institutions and universities.

However, due to some controversies with the anti-trust: for example, UNIX is prevented from spreading further in companies and other institutions. Its developers and its many supporters in the full spirit of the time had also been influenced by the social themes of those years – they were the years of the flower children -, a period of great ideals. Revolutions. Contested authorities, free love, all-out hippie movements also influenced the Unix philosophy which was believed to be freely distributed.

Indeed, such a conception, such a philosophy has more to do with the spirit of the age than with the operating system. So much so, and not surprisingly, that years later in this light in the eighties, an eccentric programmer who later became the free software guru Richard Stallman , began to work on a free alternative to Unix.

Linus Torvalds, the father of Linux

Linus Torvalds, son of Nils, a television and radio journalist and Anna, editor of the Finnish News Agency's foreign office in those years, both Communist Party activists. He was born in Helsinki, Finland on December 28, 1969. His great-grandfather, a poor farmer from the city of Vaasa (Finland) had six children, two of whom will be able to graduate.

One of the two is Leo Waldemar Tornqvist, the man who has the merit of having introduced Linus to trigonometry first and then to computers. Leo, his maternal grandfather, was a professor of statistics at the University of Helsinki. In 1981, when Linus was just 11 years old, Leo bought one of the first home-computers , computers recently marketed to the general public and designed exclusively for home use, of the time the famous and glorious Commodore Vic-20.

A feature of these computers was that they did not need any assembly. Quickly you connected it to the television, if you were lucky in color and turned it on, et voilà it was ready to use. Since one of the few things that was possible to do with these home computers was programming in Basic, Linus' grandfather Leo was able with this programming language to do many of the things he had done with the big computers (Mainframes) of the university. .

So grandfather Torvalds wrote the listings of the programs on paper, not being comfortable typing them on the PC, leaving Linus the task of typing them on the Commodore Vic-20. Over time Linus learned to write programs on his own , and one of the first and simplest BASIC language programs he wrote was the following:


20 GOTO 10

In Helsinki he attended high school at Norssen High, where he achieved excellent results in science subjects. After high school, he began his university career and enrolled in the Computer Science course at the Faculty of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Together with another student of his studies colleague, Lars, they belong to Spektrum , an association of Swedish-speaking students. Association composed of all students of hard sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics.

linus torvalds linux

The first pc

Teenager Torvalds, like all of his contemporaries, had had several home computers, the first PCs for home use. The first was the one inherited from his maternal grandfather Leo, the aforementioned Commodore Vic-20. The Commodore C64 followed, a sort of Vic-20 upgrade, continuing with an Amiga. The Commodore computers in those years in Europe and in Italy became very popular and had the merit of bringing many of the adolescents of the time closer to computer science. In that information technology period, each machine was equipped with its own specific and sometimes embryonic operating system that ranged from the most rudimentary to the most advanced for the time. Among compatible IBM PCs, DOS dominated.

Another machine bought with his own savings was the Sinclair QL, one of the first 32-bit personal computers, as an operating system he had Q-DOS written for that computer and with a very advanced BASIC. Among the best features of the Sinclair QL stood the ability to work in multitasking, that is, it was able to run multiple programs at the same time. It had a Motorola 68000 microprocessor which was 16-bit but could handle 32-bit address spaces, which made it a full-fledged 32-bit processor.

linus torvalds linux

The military service

After the first academic year attended with profit thanks to the time dedicated exclusively to the study of programming, university courses and favorite readings, he decided not to procrastinate further and that the time had come to face one of the most hateful obligations to young adults of that period historical, i.e. carrying out military service. He was presented with two possibilities: "to do the civil service that lasted one year or to do the military service that lasted eight months".

He chose the second, becoming an Officer of the Finnish Army, despite this choice costing him to do 90 days more of service than carrying out as a private, without taking into account the hard training of the officers' school. The preparation of the graduates among the many activities included long marches around Lapland loaded with weapons. Last but not least hours and hours spent skiing and then finally having to camp out in the open. In short, a tough survival course. Lieutenant Torvalds' ultimate destination was in the artillery corps with the task of fire controller.

Linus Torvalds, Linux and free software

Linus Torvalds met Richard Stallman while attending a lecture held in 1991 at the Helsinki Polytechnic. Richard Stallman was born in New York in 1953. He began working in the artificial intelligence laboratory of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in 1971 where he became part of a scientific community where the exchange of software was a tradition.

Way back in 1984 he started working on an alternative to Unix. The project took the name of GNU (GNU is a recursive acronym and stands for "GNU is not Unix") and launched a bet: an offer of computer programs that can be freely used, copied and distributed for free. A revolutionary approach in an era of monopolies in which the concept of free software based on the idea of ​​free sharing was frowned upon.

Stallman is the father of Free Software . Software is free under certain conditions:

  • whoever uses it is free to use the program for any purpose;
  • the user has the freedom to modify the program according to his own purposes (but access to the source code is required for this);
  • the user has the freedom to distribute copies of the program, free of charge or for a fee;
  • you have the freedom to distribute modified versions of the program, so that the community can benefit from the improvements made.

"Free" refers to freedom and not price: selling copies of a program does not contradict the concept of free software.

Linux, perhaps, would not occupy the place it occupies today in computer science if the concept of open source software had not existed. One of GNU's main goals was to develop an operating system, and as there was no Unix-like kernel at the time they decided to design one from scratch which would be a free kernel ( Hurd , name of the kernel) of the new operating system.

To be continued …

The article Linus Torvalds and the history of free software: from Unix to Linux was written on: Tech CuE | Close-up Engineering .