Definition

Linus Torvalds

Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel, was born in Helsinki, Finland, on December 28, 1969. When Linus was ten years old, his grandfather, a statistics professor at University of Helsinki, purchased a Commodore VIC-20 computer. Linus served as an assistant to his grandfather by entering data into his grandfather's "programmable calculator" and, just for fun, taught himself some simple BASIC programs by reading the instruction books that came with the computer. By the time he registered as a computer science student at the University of Helsinki, Linus Torvalds was an accomplished programmer.

In 1991, after taking a course in Unix and C, Torvalds bought his own personal computer (PC). He was unhappy with the operating system that came with the computer (MS-DOS) and decided to write his own. Torvalds became interested in Minix, a small Unix-like operating system developed for educational purposes by Andrew S. Tanenbaum, a Dutch professor who wanted to teach his students the inner workings of a real operating system. Minix was designed to run on Intel 8086 microprocessors and had source code that was readily available for study. Torvalds decided to develop an operating system that exceeded the Minix standards. He called it Linux, a contraction for Linus' Minix.

Linus Torvalds did not copyright his computer code. Instead, he published his code on the Internet and asked members of the comp.os.minix newsgroup to help him build his operating system. On August 25, 1991, Linus Torvalds posted this famous message:

 

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.

Linus Torvalds credits much of the success of his operating system to the Internet and to Richard Stallman's GNU project. Torvalds and his co-developers made use of the system components developed by members of the Free Software Foundation for the GNU project. The open-source philosophy behind the development of Linux, combined with the success of the operating system, has made Linus Torvalds into what can arguably be called a "cult figure." Unlike Windows and other proprietary operating systems, Linux remains publicly open and extendible by contributers. Anyone can use it without charge as long as any improvements they make are not copyrighted and remain freely available. At present, it's estimated that only 2% of Linux code today was written by Linus Torvalds himself, although he still "owns" the Linux kernel (the central part of the operating system) and remains the ultimate judge of what new code and innovations are incorporated into it.

After spending 10 years as a student and researcher at the University of Helsinki coordinating the development of the Linux kernel, Linus Torvalds accepted a job with Transmeta, a Silicon Valley start-up company known for its recruitment of high profile talent and its Crusoe chip. He is married and has two daughters.

Related glossary terms: COTS (commercial off-the-shelf), Linux
This was last updated in July 2006
Posted by: Margaret Rouse

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