Linus Torvalds says first Linux release wasn't public

This week at LinuxCon NA, Linus Torvalds talked about the email he sent 25 years ago to announce Linux.

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Linus Torvalds and Dirk Hohndel on stage.

Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

Keeping up with tradition, Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, and Dirk Hohndel, vice president and chief of open source at VMware, sat down to talk about Linux at LinuxCon NA. Here is an edited version of the conversation, in which they talked about the email Torvalds sent out 25 years ago to announce Linux.

What's the right date?

Linux celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary on August 25, but there is some confusion. "What is the correct date to celebrate? Is it really August twenty-fifth when you wrote the email [announcing the project in 1991] or is it the first release, or …?" asked Hohndel.

"The first actual release was not public," Torvalds said. While the announcement was made in August, version 0.01 of Linux was released in September. Torvalds wasn't happy with the release, but he uploaded it to an FTP server and emailed people who knew about it and were interested in it. Torvalds never made any public announcement of the actual release. He doesn't remember the date of the release because he lost all of those emails.

If you really want to find out, "you can go back and find a copy of the original TAR file and look at the date in the makefile," said Torvalds. "I think August twenty-fifth is probably the correct one."

Torvalds the fortune teller

In that original email announcement, Torvalds made several statements. Hohndel poked fun at Torvalds's predictions. "You said it's [Linux] not portable but today it supports 80 different architectures?" he asked. Torvalds responded, "I don't think it's 80 but it's more than anybody else." The fact is that today Linux runs on a huge range of architectures — scaling from tiny embedded devices to massive supercomputers.

The second prediction that Torvalds made in that announcement was that Linux wouldn't support anything other than AT hard drives. Torvalds clarified to Hohndel that was because AT was the particular hard drive he had, and he said that it was a completely personal project. Torvalds expected that there might be people who would be interested in it from a theoretical point of view, such as students of all OSes who were curious to look at it.

"That was my expectation, which meant that the kind of hardware I had was the only hardware that it ran on," Torvalds said. "It wasn't even the kind of hardware, for the first two or three releases you had to have the same AT hard drive that I had, not just any AT hard disk. It's because the geometry of the hard disk was hard coded in the source code. You could have a different AT hard disk, but you just had to change the numbers to match how many sectors you had."

The third prediction that Hohndel poked fun at was that "this [Linux] won't be big and professional." Hohndel looked at the conference room that was packed with software professionals and said, "Obviously, you were correct. This is a pretty amateurish and simple crowd."

“It took a while, though," Torvalds responded. "It really did take a while before it turned professional. Some of us still struggle with it at times."

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