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Penguin Origins: The History of Linux [Geek History]

By Danny Stieben2013-01-28

history of linuxThere’s virtually no place you can go without being in contact with Linux – it powers everything from regular computers to the most powerful servers to our handheld mobile devices. Most people who aren’t techies like us don’t even know what Linux is, nor do they know that Android runs using Linux. Whether you know it or not, Linux is everywhere, and that presence seems to only be increasing.

However, Linux isn’t a new operating system – it’s been around longer than I have and going strong. How did Linux get to where it is today?  Taking a look at the lengthy history of Linux might give us some insight on that question.

The Beginning

history of linux

In mid-September of 1991, a Finnish computer science student by the name of Linus Torvalds released Linux version 0.01, the first one ever. Torvalds claimed that he was inspired to write the Linux kernel because buying Unix or Minix systems was too expensive, especially for a college student. One of his most famous emails which advertised his project to other interested developers mentioned that the kernel project would be “nothing professional” and more of a hobby project rather than a serious attempt at creating a brand new operating system.

Little did he know that his kernel would gain a large amount of support, and over the years the kernel would be greatly expanded to be capable of much more than what it originally was.


It wasn’t long after the original release of Linux that Torvalds decided to license the software using the GNU General Public License, which allowed people to see, copy, use, and modify for their own needs. This seemingly simple decision has played a major role in why Linux has become so popular today. While the Linux Foundation and Linus Torvalds have the authority to control and release official Linux kernels, anyone in the world, both private individuals, as well as businesses or corporations, can use the software for free and modify it to their own needs.

Due to the open nature of Linux, plenty of businesses helped develop patches which would eventually be incorporated into the kernel, spurring its development dramatically.

Slackware & Debian

linux history

Just two years after the original release of the Linux kernel, a man by the name of Patrick Volkerding wrote and published Slackware, the very first Linux distribution – an operating environment ecosystem which is based on the Linux kernel. While all Linux distributions have the Linux kernel (or variations of it) as its core, everything else about the distribution can be changed. From which package format should be used to default programs for both the system and the user.

Approximately two months after the release of Slackware, another important Linux distribution was released - Debian. Out of these two oldest known Linux distributions, Debian is currently the most influential as a large amount of Linux systems run Debian or a distribution based off of it.

Mandrake Linux

While it definitely not the first distribution, and it wasn’t the best either, Mandrake Linux was one of the first real desktop-oriented Linux distributions. However it had plenty of faults, as Linux in general was still relatively young. However, it was the first serious attempt at a desktop for Linux, and became the most popular Linux distro before other projects arose.

Plenty of people who tried out Linux way back then may have some fond memories of those old systems, despite all of the struggles they had with it such as dependency hell. For those who want to look at Mandrake, check out its successor Mageia.

Rise Of Red Hat

linux history

One of the few problems that arise with every venture is how profitable something can be, and the idea of trying to make money from open source software was a great challenge. Red Hat, a corporation that aims at providing a stable Linux distribution and support to businesses, managed to accomplish this by selling support for their own Red Hat distribution. The company became profitable enough that it went public in 1999, and had the 8th highest first-day gain in Wall Street history.

This marked another major milestone for Linux’s history. Today, the company has a large amount of influence on the Linux community as well, helping out with numerous software projects, providing kernel patches, and watching over their community-run distribution Fedora from which their Red Hat distribution is made.


linux history

In 2004, one of the most popular Linux desktop distributions was released for the first time - Ubuntu. At the beginning, the Debian-based distro was, like most other Linux distributions at the time, wasn’t quite easy to get started with. However, after a number of releases, it has become a strong example for what a great Linux desktop should be.

Of course, it’s not the only one as Linux Mint is another great example, but it has become the first distro anyone mentions when they think of Linux. Now, there are plenty of organizations which are supporting Linux, and the first distribution they tend to support is Ubuntu.


history of linux

While there are great advances in the kernel and desktop distributions, it still doesn’t quite compare to the success Linux has had when it comes to mobile devices. Of course, the greatest example of this is Android, which was first released in 2008. Currently, all devices running any version of Android outnumber those that run iOS. Considering how many mobile devices currently exist in the world, that’s a lot of people who have a Linux device in their hand.

Android has been on a roll lately, and there doesn’t seem to be any slowdown in sight. Therefore, while it may not be making a large impact in the desktop market, it most certainly is in the mobile market.


Although it has most certainly been a long 20+ year history of Linux for it to come this far, it has definitely made an impact on everyone’s lives. The rate of Linux adoption appears to be at an all-time high, so the number of Linux devices can only go up. I’m really excited to see where Linux will go in the future, and how it can impact our lives in fantastic ways.

Are you happy with Linux’s progress over the last 20 years? What do you see in its future? Let us know in the comments!

Image Credits: Alejandro Matos, Ben Preston, Charlie Evatt, Lohan Larsson


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