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'Free Unix!': The world-changing proclamation made 30 years ago today

Joab Jackson | Sept. 30, 2013
On Sept. 27, 1983, a young Richard Stallman set the stage for both Linux and the open source software movement.

Richard M. Stallman
Richard M. Stallman

It was 30 years ago today -- which is to say Sept. 27, 1983 -- that the seeds were planted for both Linux and the open source software movement, though neither is called that name by the man who help set both of them into motion, the irascible Richard Stallman.

On that day, Stallman, then working at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, posted on the net.unix-wizards and net.usoft newsgroups about an ambitious new project he was embarking on.

"Free Unix!" began the missive.

"Starting this Thanksgiving I am going to write a complete Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for Gnu's Not Unix), and give it away free to everyone who can use it. Contributions of time, money, programs and equipment are greatly needed," he wrote.

Little did he know how many contributions this project would get in the decades to follow.

A prodigious programmer, Stallman went on to write many of the components for GNU himself, including the C compiler (GCC) and build automator (gmake). The GNU OS, however, still needed a kernel. It was provided, perhaps advertently, by a Finnish computer science student Linus Torvalds who in 1991 began working on his own free version of Unix for personal computers, which was named Linux.

Today, of course, Linux is one of the most widely used, if not the most widely used, OSes on the globe. Technically speaking, Torvalds' contribution to Linux is mostly the kernel, or the operating core, of what we think of as Linux. Many of the supporting components in today's Linux distributions actually come from the GNU project.

Stallman campaigned for a few years to rename Linux as the GNU/Linux, which, although technically being a more accurate name, failed to catch on, even as Linux development and usage continued to accelerate.

In its latest annual survey of Linux development, the Linux Foundation estimated that since 2005, nearly 10,000 individual developers from over 1,000 different companies contributed to the Linux kernel.

Perhaps even more important than preparing for the birth of Linux, Stallman's online proclamation also set the stage for what would subsequently be known as open source software, or, as Stallman still calls it, "free software." Computer hacking culture, in which programmers freely shared their code, had long been in place when Stallman began his project, though more and more companies began selling their software, and not letting their customers or anyone else view or modify the underlying code. Today such software is known as "proprietary software."

This practice incensed Stallman, and he vowed to fight it with his new OS.


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