History - Unix, GNU, and Linux

karthik · updated · flag

Why do you need to know the history of Linux? Look at the words in the header! No clue about them right? Well, you’d encounter them often when you use Linux if you are getting into it for the first time. Also it’s good to know the roots of the tool you are going to use. It’ll be quick!

The dawn of Unix

Unix is an operating system that was developed in the 1970s at the Bell Telephone Laboratories. As the folks at Bell needed a multi-user and productive OS, Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson came up with Unix.

It was cool, modular, and it soon got the attention of many researchers at the universities. As it evolved, AT&T started licensing unix to several companies who all made their own versions of it. As a result, there was a chaotic battlefield of closed and open source unix variants fighting each other.

Around 1983, frustrated with the scene of proprietary OS, Richard Stallman, at MIT, initiated a public-focused project under the name GNU to build free and open operating system.

GNU and the free software movement

GNU’s primary goal was to create an operating system that was based on Unix and one that would let users look at the source code, modify it, derive their own versions of it, and publish them to others.

So the initiative expanded and programmers all over the world rebuilt most of the programs from Unix with a public focused license. By the early 90s, they had most of the system software and libraries enough to make a completely free and open-source operating system.

And then there was Linux

As GNU was gaining major traction in the early 90s with its free software movement, Linus Torvalds, announced Linux, a kernel that conformed to the same principle of free software.

What's a kernel?For now, think of it as the heart of an operating system. You'll learn more about it in the next lesson.

Soon after Linux was released, people combined the OS utility programs from GNU with the Linux kernel and created the first free and open-source operating system that was unix-like, but with more freedom to the end user.

As the GNU/Linux combo succeeded, eventually people and companies started packaging them in different flavours with more utilities and programs and started distributing them for free. These are commonly called as Linux distributions or ‘distros’ in short.

Ubuntu and Fedora are the current most popular Linux distributions in the world. And in this Mindspace crash course, you will be exploring Linux with the Ubuntu distribution.