- inventor of Linux
- prime mover of the Open Source movement
“In fact, I think Linus’s cleverest and most consequential hack was not the construction of the Linux kernel itself, but rather his invention of the Linux development model…”
– Eric S. Raymond, _The Cathedral And The Bazaar_ (1998)
Credit for Linux generally goes to its human namesake, one Linus Torvalds, a Finnwho got the whole thing rolling in 1991 when he used some of the GNU tools to write the beginnings of a Unix kernel that could run on PC-compatible hardware. And indeed Torvalds deserves all the credit he has ever gotten, and a whole lot more. But he could not have made it happen by himself, any more than Richard Stallman could have. To write code at all, Torvalds had to have cheap but powerful development tools, and these he got from Stallman’s GNU project.
Microsoft refused to go into the hardware business, insisted on making its software run on hardware that anyone could build, and thereby created the market conditions that allowed hardware prices to plummet. In trying to understand the Linux phenomenon, then, we have to look not to a single innovator but to a sort of bizarre Trinity: Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, and Bill Gates. Take away any of these three and Linux would not exist.
– Neal Stephenson – _Cryptonomicon_
_The San Jose Mercury News_ profiled him in a piece titled “Linus the Liberator” by David Diamond (1999):
Unlike many in Silicon Valley, the newcomer is guided by a strong set of ethics. “There are like two golden rules in life. One is ‘Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.’ For some reason, people associate this with christianity. I’m not a christian. I’m agnostic. The other rule is ‘Be proud of what you do.'”
See the full article at http://www.mercurynews.com/svtech/news/special/linus/
Update: From an interview in the November 1999 _Linux Journal_ magazine, some excerpts
Margie: How about religion?
Linus: Hmmmm, completely a-religious — atheist. I find that people seem to think religion brings morals and appreciation of nature. I actually think it detracts from both. It gives people the excuse to say, “Oh, nature was just created”, and so the act of creation is seen to be something miraculous. I appreciate the fact that, “Wow, it’s incredible that something like this could have happened in the first place.” I think we can have morals without getting religion into it, and a lot of bad things have come from organized religion in particular. I actually fear organized religion because it usually leads to misuses of power.
Margie: As in holy wars?
Linus: Yeah, and I find it kind of distasteful having religions that tell you what you can do and what you can’t do. Catholicism is an example of that kind of non-permissiveness, and I think that is very easy to get into if you are an organized religion. Religion is a very strange idea. In Finland, nobody cares. Many people are religious in Finland, but it’s not a political issue. Over here, religion has become politicized, so you have the fringe people in the news. And then people are afraid to talk about it because it has political implications, and that’s usually not true in most of Europe. Religion is a personal matter, but does not matter for anything else. That’s how I think it should be done.
Margie: Yes, we were founded to keep the two separated. Then the Moral Majority found out what a large constituency they had, and…
Linus: Yeah, it’s kind of ironic that in many European countries, there is actually a kind of legal binding between the state and the state religion. At the same time, in practice, religion has absolutely nothing to do with everyday life. Maybe the taxes to the church, but that’s it. They don’t have any political power.
Margie: Here it’s called tithing, not taxes.
Linus: Actually, in Finland they call it taxes — you pay taxes to the church. If you are a member of the church, you pay 2% tax to the church. And that’s the amount of legal binding between the church and the state. Apart from that, they are completely separate. In the U.S., church and state claim to be very separate, but you still see the church has a lot of power in politics.
Margie: What about school for the kids? Are y’all going to stay here in the states for them to go to school?
Linus: Well that used to be kind of a major worry between us. We’ve seen some strange things. Tove was off looking for preschools, because you start so early here in the U.S. I looked closer at one of the papers she brought home, and found it mentioned L. Ron Hubbard. I started asking around about the place, and it turns out there are a scientology school, and they don’t mention the fact that they are associated with scientology anywhere in their literature. And that kind of makes me nervous. I don’t want to put my child in a scientology school by mistake.
From: Linus Torvalds <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: Coding style – a non-issue
On Fri, 30 Nov 2001, Rik van Riel wrote:
> I’m very interested too, though I’ll have to agree with Larry that
> Linux really isn’t going anywhere in particular and seems to be
> making progress through sheer luck.
Hey, that’s not a bug, that’s a FEATURE!
You know what the most complex piece of engineering known to man in the whole solar system is?
Guess what – it’s not Linux, it’s not Solaris, and it’s not your car.
It’s you. And me.
And think about how you and me actually came about – not through any complex design.
Right. “sheer luck”.
Well, sheer luck, AND:
– free availability and _crosspollination_ through sharing of “source code”, although biologists call it DNA.
– a rather unforgiving user environment, that happily replaces bad versions of us with better working versions and thus culls the herd (biologists often call this “survival of the fittest”)
– massive undirected parallel development (“trial and error”)
I’m deadly serious: we humans have _never_ been able to replicate something more complicated than what we ourselves are, yet natural selection did it without even thinking.
Don’t underestimate the power of survival of the fittest.
And don’t EVER make the mistake that you can design something better than what you get from ruthless massively parallel trial-and-error with a feedback cycle. That’s giving your intelligence _much_ too much credit.
Quite frankly, Sun is doomed. And it has nothing to do with their engineering practices or their coding style.
Linus Torvalds announcement on Usenet:
From: Linus Benedict Torvalds (torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI)
Subject: Free minix-like kernel sources for 386-AT
Date: 1991-10-05 08:53:28 PST
Do you pine for the nice days of minix-1.1, when men were men and wrote their own device drivers? Are you without a nice project and just dying to cut your teeth on a OS you can try to modify for your needs? Are you finding it frustrating when everything works on minix? No more all-nighters to get a nifty program working? Then this post might be just for you 🙂
As I mentioned a month(?) ago, I’m working on a free version of a minix-lookalike for AT-386 computers. It has finally reached the stage where it’s even usable (though may not be depending on what you want), and I am willing to put out the sources for wider distribution. It is just version 0.02 (+1 (very small) patch already), but I’ve successfully run bash/gcc/gnu-make/gnu-sed/compress etc under it.
Sources for this pet project of mine can be found at nic.funet.fi (184.108.40.206) in the directory /pub/OS/Linux. The directory also contains some README-file and a couple of binaries to work under linux (bash, update and gcc, what more can you ask for :-). Full kernel source is provided, as no minix code has been used. Library sources are only partially free, so that cannot be distributed currently. The system is able to compile “as-is” and has been known to work. Heh.
Sources to the binaries (bash and gcc) can be found at the same place in /pub/gnu.
ALERT! WARNING! NOTE! These sources still need minix-386 to be compiled (and gcc-1.40, possibly 1.37.1, haven’t tested), and you need minix to set it up if you want to run it, so it is not yet a standalone system for those of you without minix. I’m working on it. You also need to be something of a hacker to set it up (?), so for those hoping for an alternative to minix-386, please ignore me. It is currently meant for hackers interested in operating systems and 386’s with access to minix.
The system needs an AT-compatible harddisk (IDE is fine) and EGA/VGA. If you are still interested, please ftp the README/RELNOTES, and/or mail me for additional info.
I can (well, almost) hear you asking yourselves “why?”. Hurd will be out in a year (or two, or next month, who knows), and I’ve already got minix. This is a program for hackers by a hacker. I’ve enjouyed doing it, and somebody might enjoy looking at it and even modifying it for their own needs. It is still small enough to understand, use and modify, and I’m looking forward to any comments you might have.
I’m also interested in hearing from anybody who has written any of the utilities/library functions for minix. If your efforts are freely distributable (under copyright or even public domain), I’d like to hear from you, so I can add them to the system. I’m using Earl Chews estdio right now (thanks for a nice and working system Earl), and similar works will be very wellcome. Your (C)’s will of course be left intact. Drop me a line if you are willing to let me use your code.
PS. to PHIL NELSON! I’m unable to get through to you, and keep getting “forward error – strawberry unknown domain” or something.