29 March 2006

Linus Torvalds' First Usenet Posting

It was 15 years ago today that Linus made his first Usenet posting, to the comp.os.minix newsgroup. This is how it began:

Hello everybody,
I've had minix for a week now, and have upgraded to 386-minix (nice), and duly downloaded gcc for minix. Yes, it works - but ... optimizing isn't working, giving an error message of "floating point stack exceeded" or something. Is this normal?

Minix was the Unix-like operating system devised by Andy Tanenbaum as a teaching aid, and gcc a key hacker program that formed part of Stallman's GNU project. Linus' question was pretty standard beginner's stuff, and yet barely two days later, he answered a fellow-newbie's question as if he were some Minix wizard:

RTFSC (Read the F**ing Source Code :-) - It is heavily commented and the solution should be obvious (take that with a grain of salt, it certainly stumped me for a while :-).

He may have been slightly premature in according himself this elevated status, but it wasn't long before he not only achieved it but went far beyond. For on Sunday, 25 August, 1991, he made another posting to the comp.os.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. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready.

The hobby, of course, was Linux, and this was its official announcement to the world.

But imagine, now, that Linus had never made that first posting back in March 1991. It could have happened: as Linus told me in 1996 when I interviewed him for a feature in Wired, back in those days

I was really so shy I didn't want to speak in classes. Even just as a student I didn't want to raise my hand and say anything.

It's easy to imagine him deciding not to “raise his hand” in the comp.os.minix newsgroup for fear of looking stupid in front of all the Minix experts (including the ultimate professor of computing, Tanenbaum himself). And if he'd not plucked up courage to make that first posting, he probably wouldn't have made the others or learned how to hack a simple piece of code he had written for the PC into something that grew into the Linux kernel.

What would the world look like today, had Linux never been written? Would we be using the GNU Hurd – the kernel that Stallman intended to use originally for his GNU operating system, but which was delayed so much that people used Linux instead? Or would one of the BSD derivatives have taken off instead?

Or perhaps there would simply be no serious free alternative to Microsoft Windows, no open source movement, and we would be living in a world where computing was even more under the thumb of Bill Gates. In this alternative reality, there would be no Google either, since it depends on the availability of very low-cost GNU/Linux boxes for the huge server farms that power all its services.

It's amazing how a single post can change the world.


Anonymous said...

the GNU Hurd – the kernel that Stallman intended to use originally for his GNU operating system, but which was delayed so much that people used Linux instead?

Nothing technical here, it boils down to leadership.

Glyn Moody said...

I think there was an element: Stallman told me that he thought he might have made the wrong technical choice when they were designing the kernel, and this slowed them down.

Anonymous said...

But not the single post changed the world, but the fact that he wrote that kernel :)

What would have helped if he had made the post but not the kernel...

Anyway, great article!


Anonymous said...

dear friends
where i got the minix source code which is posted by linus torvalds.
Thanks for sharing information
if u find plz mail me address of os source code.

Glyn Moody said...

@anonymous: you can get the latest version here:


I don't think early versions are available.