Linux LogoOpen source software is no longer the exclusive preserve of developers and tech-heads looking to become the next Bill Gates while simultaneously shunning Windows. It’s popular with the masses now, too – largely because it’s free. One of the driving forces behind its widespread adoption has been the continued success of Linux. This article will look at the history of how the Linux operating system has evolved.

The Kernel’s Special

Some defining terms first.

At the heart of any operating system is the kernel. It’s the core that allows associated software to smoothly interact with the hardware it’s installed on. The kernel enables task-switching, and regulates the way in which priority is given to various processes as the switch is made from one to another.

A Taste for Distros

Compilers, utilities, and other programs surround the kernel. These are the running elements of an operating system. There can be several different combinations and versions of the software around the kernel. Each specific mix makes up a software distribution, or distro.

Different distributions may be suitable for different purposes. At the core of each distro of an operating system, though, is the kernel.

Preparing The Way

Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie created the Unix operating system in 1969. It was very popular in academic and industrial circles, and formed the basis of several projects that emerged in subsequent years, like the Berkley Software Distribution (BSD) and MINIX (or Mini-Unix), published by Professor Andrew S. Tanenbaum together with his book “Operating Systems: Design and Implementation”.

In 1983, Richard Stallman launched the GNU Project to develop an operating system that would be compatible with Unix, but available for free. GNU stands for Gnu’s Not Unix. A call went out to developers across the globe to contribute code, applications, and utilities. The OS was largely complete by 1991, but it was missing something.

The Kernel Takes Charge

In Finland, Linus Torvalds, a student at the University of Helsinki, had been tinkering with hard drive access and device drivers based on Mini-Unix. Using the MINIX template, he developed a free terminal emulator that would lay the foundations for an OS kernel.

On the 25th of August 1991, Torvalds posted this call to action on the MINIX Newsgroup:

“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…

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 Torvalds; Posting to comp.os.minix; 25 Aug. 1991.”

Input from contributors helped the kernel – originally called Freax – to evolve.

By September of 1991, Torvalds had a working iteration of the kernel, which he dubbed Version 0.01. It would later be amalgamated with GNU (as GNU/Linux) to create a finished and free operating system.

By the end of that year, Linux had grown into a complete OS. One of its earliest distributions came from the Manchester Computing Centre, whose MCC Interim Linux featured a combined root and boot disk.

Why Linux?

Simple, really: (Lin)us (U)ni(X).

Version 0.02 appeared on October 5th, 1991. It still had MINIX at its base, but developed rapidly as Torvalds and numerous collaborators on the internet tweaked and coded. December 19th saw Version 0.11, a standalone Linux system. The slightly more stable Linux Version 0.12 was released on January 5th 1992.

The years 1992-1994 saw the OS mature to its next milestone, Version 0.95. This was the most stable kernel to date, a feature-rich release that could run the X Window System.

In March 1994, Linux 1.0.0 arrived. This time it also saw the rise to prominence of some major players in the Linux realm, namely, Red Hat, Slackware, and Debian.


Peter MacDonald created the forerunner of Slackware in 1992, calling it the Softlanding Linux System or SLS. It combined the X Window System, a TCP/IP stack and the Linux 0.99 kernel. SLS was bug-laden, and Patrick Volkerding’s embellishment of it (dubbed Slackware) was quickly adopted. Of the Linux distros, it’s the longest-running to date.

In 1994, the Software und System-Entwicklung (read, SUSE) took Jurix Linux – the first distribution with a scriptable installer, and one of the first designed to use EXT2 – and used it as the basis for SUSE Linux, a Slackware derivative.


Another response to the bug-laden interface of SLS, The Debian Linux Release was fashioned in 1993, by Ian Murdock. The name allegedly derives from its creator and his girlfriend at the time, Debra Lynn.

Systems based on Debian were more desktop-oriented. Distros of note included Storm, Finnix, Libranet, and Corel Linux.

Red Hat

Red Hat Commercial Linux emerged on November 3rd, 1994. It was developed by Marc Ewing, and its name came from the colored hat he favored at university.

Between 1995 and 1999, the Linux kernel matured from Version 1.2.0 to Version 2.2. Version 2.0 came with an improved memory manager and support for SMP and a wider range of processors. Version 2.2 added a read-only function for NTFS and PowerPC architecture support.

In that period, the Red Hat line released some notable distros including Yellow Dog, Red Flag, Caldera, TurboLinux, and Mandrake.


The Kool Desktop Environment (KDE) was created by University of Tübingen student Matthias Ettrich in 1996. His was a complete package, with a range of applications and an associated desktop environment (Qt).

KDE Version 1.0 was generally released in 1998, and shipped with the Mandrake distro. Year 2000’s Version 2.0 added KOffice, Konqueror, and KIO networking capabilities.


This period also saw developers Federico Mena and Miguel de Icaza unleash Gnome, a new desktop environment and associated programs based on GTK+. Some sources credit Red Hat as the first Linux distribution to use Gnome.

Fast and user-friendly, Gnome 1.2 Bongo had evolved, by May 2000. 2012 saw the emergence of Gnome 3.0 – and the less said about that the better.

Wider Adoption

2000 saw most tech companies supporting Linux in some form, with adoption by such notables as Sun and Oracle. The OS gained a higher profile and more enthusiasts by featuring often in computer-related magazines and media.

Live Distro

Knoppix 1.4, a Debian derivative from developer Klaus Knopper, was launched on September 30th, 2000. Its unique selling point was that (unlike previous Linux distros) Knoppix could be booted directly from a CD. Once installed, the OS had access to a huge range of compatible hardware, and the ability to hook up to most existing networks.

Knoppix began the trend towards works-straight-out-of-the-box Linux distros, which were beginning to look suspiciously like Microsoft products.

To counter this movement, the Linux From Scratch (LFS) project was instigated. It came with a book containing instructions on how to construct a Linux system from source code, written by Gerard Beekmans.

The Foundation

The Linux Foundation was established in 2000, with a mission to continue developing the OS, and to defend the core values of the work being done by Linus Torvalds and the community at large.

Meanwhile, Linux Version 2.4 emerged on January 4th, with USB support, ISA Plug and Play, and PC card support. RAID, Bluetooth, and EXT3 followed, in a range of iterations that stretched to 2011’s Version

On a related strand of development, Version 2.6 was released in December 2002. This supported the latest CPUs, and had improved handling for 64-bit file systems, 16TB file sizes, and the new EXT4.


Some now felt the tide turning against the less technically inclined user. To redress the balance, Ubuntu was created using the Debian platform. Ease-of-use was its aim; allowing even inexperienced users to update the Linux desktop without nitpicking the code. It grew to become the fourth-placed operating system in the world. The distro’s high-point was the Warty Warthog (Ubuntu Version 4.10) of October 20th, 2004.

Its low was Ubuntu’s 14th release, which came with a new interface dubbed “Unity” – which everyone roundly despised. Ubuntu still hasn’t really recovered from the fallout of this.

Mint Condition

In 2006, Linux Mint 1.0 (Ada) emerged. Based initially on Ubuntu (but later also including Debian foundations) it achieved equilibrium between ease-of-use advocates and those still preferring a more hands-on approach.

The Android Irony

September 23rd, 2008 saw the release of an OS for mobile devices that was based on Linux, and dubbed Android. It would eventually grab 80% of the global market. The irony is that its millions of users probably aren’t even aware that their operating system is a Linux derivative.

In fact, some form of Linux is now running on practically any type of device you can think of. The kernel’s latest stable release is Version 3.12.7, which shipped in 2014.

And the Penguins?

Yes, that. From the outset, Linus Torvalds loved penguins.

The story has it that Torvalds was bitten by one while visiting an Australian zoo in 1996. “Infected with penguinitis” (so Linus claims), he spent several sleepless nights dreaming about them.

The rest is history.

William Thompson is the Marketing Manager at Power Admin, a server monitoring software business in the Kansas City area. You can find him on Google+ and Twitter. William has been a professional in website design, digital marketing and 3D/graphic design for over 20 years.

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