Listed in The Britannica Guides ‘The 100 Most Influential Inventors of All Time’ (it’s not the only prestigious list he’s been a part of), Linus Torvalds is the creative genius behind Linux kernel OS. One of the world’s most renowned software programmers, he revolutionized the computer industry. Today, we’ll take a look at this legend’s life and achievements. So, stay tuned if you want to know more about him. On a side note, Torvalds has an asteroid and an asteroid moon named after him.
Early Life and Family of Linus Torvalds
Linus Benedict Torvalds was born on December 28, 1969, in Helsinki, Finland to Nils and Anna Torvalds. He was named after Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize-winning American chemist. He is the grandson of the Finnish-Swedish journalist and poet, Ole Torvalds.
His family belongs to the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, which numbers about three-hundred-thousand in a total population of roughly 5 million.
Many members of the family were journalists. His parents were both radicals at the University of Helsinki in the 1960s. His father was a Communist who spent a year studying in Moscow in the mid-1970s and later worked as a foreign correspondent for the Finnish Broadcasting Company in Moscow and Washington. Currently, he’s a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from Finland. His mother worked for a Finnish newspaper as a translator and a creator of news graphics. Also, his uncle worked for Finnish TV.
Linus’ parents divorced when he was just 10 years old, but despite that, he still had a fairly conventional and happy childhood. He lived with his mother and also with his grandparents. Consistent with his family’s occupation, he preferred reading and learning in solitude to sports and other physical activities.
It was his maternal grandfather, Leo Toernqvist (one of the first professors of statistics in Finland, and the first to achieve international recognition), who had the most influence on the young Linus. Leo had a Commodore Vic 20 (one of the first PC). Linus soon became bored with the few programs that were available for it, and he thus began writing new ones using BASIC programming language, this is when he discovered his love for computers and programming. Thus, later on switching to much more difficult but also more powerful assembly language.
The Birth of Linux
In 1988, Linus enrolled at the University of Helsinki to study computer programming. He took an 11-month break for mandatory military service and then resumed his studies in 1990. In 1991, a 21-year-old Linus having just purchased his first PC decided that he was not satisfied with the computer’s OS. His PC used MS-DOS (the disk OS from Microsoft Corp.), but Linus preferred the UNIX OS he had used on the university’s computers. He could not buy a UNIX system since he didn’t have enough money, so, he decided to create his own PC-based version of UNIX. Months of determined programming work yielded the beginnings of an OS known as Linux.
He posted a message on the Internet to alert other PC users to this rudimentary version of the first Linux software, made the software available for free downloading. He also released its source code publicly, which meant that anyone with knowledge of computer programming could modify Linux to suit their own purposes.
This was a major attraction for many hardcore computer programmers and Linus began to have a cult-like following of devoted programming enthusiasts. These programmers were monumental in helping to retool and refine the Linux OS, and by 1994 Linux kernel (original code) version 1.0 was released. The version in use today is very different from Linus’ original one and contains modifications and additions by thousands of programmers from around the globe. Linus, however, retains the final say on the incorporation of new codes to his original program.
Unlike, other more popular OSs such as Windows, Apple’s Mac OS, or IBM OS/2, operating Linux was a little difficult and required a certain amount of technical acumen. However, it evolved into a remarkably reliable, efficient system that rarely crashed because its devoted programmers meticulously combed out the system loopholes.
By the late 1990s, Linux developed into what many observers saw as a genuine threat to mighty Microsoft and its seemingly ubiquitous Windows OS. Many companies including Netscape Communications Corp., Oracle Corp., and Intel Corp. announced plans to support Linux as an inexpensive alternative to Windows. As this scenario took shape, Linux devotees and the media delighted in portraying Torvalds as David out to slay the giant, Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder and CEO. Linus, however, did not agree with such assertions and said he did it all “just for fun.”
The difference between Gates & Linus was that one was fabulously wealthy, whereas the other was making close to nothing from his free software. Linus was subsisting only on an average programmer’s salary, and he and his family were living in a modest duplex in an ordinary neighborhood. Nevertheless, he was subsequently rewarded with both wealth and power, and he has not been reluctant to admit that money has its advantages.
Linus’s financial situation changed dramatically in 1999. Red Hat and VA Linux (now VA Software), both leading developers of Linux-based software packages for large enterprises, offered Linus stock options in honor of his contributions. Linus suddenly became a millionaire when Red Hat went public, and his net worth temporarily soared to roughly $20 million when VA Linux went public later that year.
Coming back to Linux, along with being free, anyone can view and freely modify it’s source code (something a proprietary operating system lacks). Meaning that different language versions can be developed and deployed in markets that would be too small for traditional companies. Also, a lot of organizations and governments have expressed security concerns about using any type of software that contains code that cannot be viewed. Due to these reasons, localized versions of Linux have become common in China and a lot of other non-Western countries.
Due to his skills and accomplishments, Linus was appointed to the post of instructor at the University of Helsinki, something which allowed him to simultaneously work on Linux development. The first homework assignment for an introductory computer class that he taught in 1993 was for each student to send him an e-mail.
One of the students, Tove Minni, a Finnish karate champion, sent him an e-mail asking him out on a date. He accepted, and 3 years later Tove and Linus were married and have three daughters, Patricia Miranda (born 1996), Daniela Yolanda (born 1998), and Celeste Amanda (born 2000), two of whom were born in the US.
Move to California
Linus attended the University of Helsinki between 1988 and 1996 as a student, researcher, and instructor. After spending nearly a decade, he decided that it was time for a change, in terms of both scenery and job (a real one). Needless to say, there was no shortage of opportunities available to him.
Thus, in 1997 he moved to California to accept a position with Transmeta Corporation, a microprocessor manufacturer owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. What he has to do there was to help develop commercial software to facilitate communication between OSs and that company’s microprocessors. This move to a for-profit business was very concerning for Linux devotees, who were also concerned about the fact that it was funded in part by Microsoft co-founder.
For Linus, however, it was an easy decision. Not only did it provide him with a much-needed change, but also he got to experience a much-improved climate (from the long, cold, and dark Finnish winters). Moreover, he now had to support a family.
In 2003, he left the company to work as a project coordinator under the auspices of the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), a consortium created by such high-tech companies as IBM, Intel, and Siemens to promote Linux development. It merged with the Free Standards Group to form the Linux Foundation in 2007.
Linus also developed Git, which is a software change control and distribution system. Git allows developers to control versions and distribute beta and stable versions to end-users. Git keeps strict control of code changes, keeps a log of changes, and lets developers merge versions of their software.
Linus has earned several awards and recognition for his achievements in computer science. Linus has been given the Millennium Technology Prize, an award in the Internet Hall of Fame. As mentioned at the very start, Linus has been featured in a number of prestigious lists including Time Magazine’s most important people of the century.