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Sunday, 10 May 2009 07:57

Happy mother's day, Linus Torvalds

Today, May 10th 2009, is Mother's day for many countries around the world from Anguilla to Zimbabwe. How fitting, then, to offer a tribute to Linus Torvalds, the "mother" of Linux.

Mother’s day is a relatively modern celebration, created at the start of the 20th century in West Virginia by Anna Jarvis.

Some interesting tidbits for you: Jarvis’ own mother died in 1905. Two years later she held a memorial to her mother and campaigned to make “Mother’s Day” a recognised holiday. She succeeded in 1914 and a national day was established in the United States of America.

The name is specifically “Mother’s day” (singular, possessive) not “Mothers’ day” (plural) because the day is not meant to celebrate mothers as a group but rather for each individual family to pay respect to their mother.

Not too many years later Jarvis became soured on the commercialisation that had risen. She criticised people who sent their mother a printed greeting card, and who gave a box of candy while eating most of it themselves.

Jarvis and her sister both spent their fortune later campaigning against the day and they died in poverty. Jarvis never married and in bitter irony had no children of her own.

Many countries around the world adopted the event and the second Sunday of May date as used in the U.S. but the event is also celebrated throughout the year on different days in other countries, drawing on cultural heritages and related ancient festivities. These range from as early as February 2nd in Greece, and as late as December 22nd in Indonesia.

If your Linux-based computer could talk, today it would be expressing a warm Happy Mother’s Day greeting to its virtual mother, Finnish born Linus Benedict Torvalds.

Torvalds was born on December 28th, 1969 in Helsinki. His parents, Nils and Anna Torvalds, are journalists and his grandfather Ole Torvalds was a prominent journalist and poet, who received an honorary doctorate in 1978 for his work.

Despite such a literary heritage Linus was drawn towards the 8-bit computers that were popular during his youth. Like many young people in the 1980’s, he began with a Commodore VIC-20 and next purchased a Sinclair QL. Unlike most, however, he modified the QL extensively, especially its operating system!

In 1988 Torvalds attended the University of Helsinki studying Computer Science. On January 2nd, 1991, he purchased an Intel 80386-based IBM PC. Initially he used this to play Prince of Persia but soon received a copy of MINIX which changed his life, and ours too.

MINIX is a very minimal version of the UNIX operating system (and its name literally means “minimal UNIX.”) It was created by Professor Andrew S. Tanenbaum at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

Tanenbaum impressively wrote MINIX as a practical supplement to the principles conveyed in his textbook, Operating Systems Design and Implementation. MINIX was designed for the 8086 and 80286 processors as used in IBM PC and PC/AT computers at the time.

MINIX was released as free and open source software and consequently put the power of UNIX into the hands of many for the first time. One such person was Linus Torvalds.

Just as Torvald’s early home computing experiences inflamed his passion for how computers work, so too did MINIX inspire him.

In 1991 Torvalds initially used MINIX to develop a terminal emulator so he could access the University UNIX servers from his own computer. He wanted to take advantage of the 80386 hardware and developed his program to run specifically on this hardware, independent of an underlying operating system. Before long he realised he’d actually developed an operating system kernel as a side-effect!

On 25th August 1991 Torvalds announced this in a famous Usenet posting to the group comp.os.minix,

Hello everybody out there using minix –

I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).

I’ve currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40), and things seem to work. This implies that I’ll get something practical within a few months, and I’d like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won’t promise I’ll implement them :-)

Linus (

PS. Yes – it’s free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs. It is NOT portable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that’s all I have :-(

Meanwhile, back in 1983, notable hacker Richard Stallman started the GNU Project with the goal of creating a free UNIX-like operating system.

By the early 1990’s this included a vast repository of software such as a C/C++ compiler (gcc), a command shell (bash) and many other pieces of work including Stallman’s own everything-but-the-kitchen-sink text editor emacs.

Yet, the GNU Project was missing something crucial. They did not have an operating system kernel. Their intended kernel, called Hurd, failed to attract enough attention from developers.

Torvalds later stated that had the GNU Hurd existed, or if MINIX – or anyone else – had a ‘386 kernel available he’d likely not have written his own.

Great interest arose in what Linus had created and he made it available for download at the Helsinki University of Technology. The kernel needed a name, and were it not for a single decision we might be talking about Freax now.

Torvalds considered the name “Linux” for his project but felt it was possibly egotistical. He then leaned towards Freax, trying to merge the words freak, free and X (as an allusion to UNIX.)

Torvalds stored his work under the directory name Freax but the FTP administrator at the Helsinki University of Technology didn’t think this was a very good name. He thus titled the folder “Linux” without consulting Torvalds and it thus became known forevermore by this moniker.

Torvalds noted in his release notes for Linux 0.01 that a kernel by itself gets you nowhere. To get a working system you need a shell, compilers, a library and other items. He consequently advocated the work of the GNU Project and encouraged people to contact GNU for more information on their work.

While GNU had always enjoyed a modicum of fame amongst UNIX users, it wasn’t until a free ‘386-based kernel became available that a real, genuine, advanced and fully-featured UNIX system hit the masses, eclipsing the success of MINIX earlier.

Consequently, the Linux name received vast acclaim and fanfare and Linux became the most popular adoption of GNU software. The name began to be used for the entire distribution of software, possibly to the chagrin of the GNU Project.

In 1994 Debian called their project Debian GNU/Linux, and in May 1996 Stallman attempted to popularise the term Lignux but this never caught on.

Today, both Debian and GNU continue to refer to “GNU/Linux” but it's undeniable that “Linux” has pretty much become the widespread common label for the combination.

Nevertheless, no matter your leaning on the naming, there can be no doubt we wouldn’t enjoy distributions like Ubuntu, Red Hat, SUSE, Slackware, Knoppix or any others without the work of Linus Torvalds, a Swedish-speaking Fin who just wanted to access University computers with the features provided by a '386 processor.

Happy Mother’s Day, Linus Torvalds.



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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.




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