Linus Torvalds: The Man Who Created Linux Kernel

Linus Benedict Torvalds, a Finnish-American computer programmer, created Linux kernel in 1991. It’s a free and open-source Unix-like operating system kernel that has spawned hundreds of operating system distributions, commonly known as Linux.

Today, Linux is deployed on a broad range of computing systems, from embedded devices and personal computers to mainframes and supercomputers. It powers most of the web, including Google and Facebook, and totally dominates supercomputers. In fact, the world’s fastest 500 supercomputers are running Linux.

Torvalds has been honored with numerous awards and prizes for his creation. We have gathered some of the most interesting facts about his life, career, and media recognition.

If you are a nerd, you may already know many things about him, but we are sure that you will learn something new by reading these facts.

1. Named After The Nobel Prize-winning chemist

Torvalds was named after Linus Pauling, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1954) and the Nobel Peace Prize (1962). Pauling was one of four individuals to have won more than one Nobel Prize.

Linus: Nobel Laureate and comic character

However, Torvalds thinks he was named equally for Linus the Peanuts comic character. This makes him half “blanket-carrying comic character” and half “Nobel laureate”.

2. Torvalds Is A Rare Surname

There are hardly 30 people in the world with that last name. According to Linus, his paternal grandfather changed the surname from Torvald to Torvalds, probably because he didn’t like his family. All Torvalds in the world are his descendants.

Or you can say that one of the most famous names in computing is completely made up, and not more than two generations ago.

3. His First Computer

VIC-20 mainboard

Torvalds got his first computer at the age of 10. It was an 8-bit home computer, Commodore VIC-20. It was equipped with 5 KB of static RAM and used the MOS 6502 CPU.

4. Torvalds Was Second Lieutenant In The Army

Although Torvalds like to spend time on computers, he had to select an 11-month officer training program to fulfill Finland’s compulsory military service. He held the rank of Second Lieutenant in the army.

5. He Developed His Own Assembler And Games

Torvalds interest in programming began at an early age. He heavily configured the operating system of his personal computer Sinclair QL. Since it was quite difficult to get software in Finland, he wrote his own assembler and editor for the computer. He also developed a few games, including a Pac-Man clone called Cool Man.

6. The University Project

Torvalds learned about UNIX for the first time in 1990. This was the time when he used MicroVAX (a low-cost minicomputer developed by Digital Equipment Corporation) running the native Unix operating system named Ultrix.

He subsequently purchased a 32-bit Intel i386-based clone of IBM PC and began working on a new operating system. One year later, he published his MSc thesis titled “Linux: A Portable Operating System”.

7. Torvalds Wanted To Name The Kernel Freax

In the initial phase of development, Torvalds wanted to name his invention Freax, which is an amalgamation of Free, Freak, and the letter X (as an allusion to Unix). He even stored the files under the name Freax for about six months.

But Ari Lemmke, one of the volunteer administrators for the FTP server, didn’t like the name Freax and named the project Linux on the server without asking Torvalds. Later, however, Torvalds consented to this name.

8. He Was Granted The Trademark Of Linux

Between 1994 and 1995, several people from different countries tried to register the name ‘Linux’ as a trademark and started demanding royalties from Linux developers.

This forced Torvalds to step in. He clamped down on these individuals with help from Linux International and was granted the trademark of Linux. The protection of the trademark was later handled by the non-profit Linux Mark Institute.

In 2000, Torvalds established certain rules for the assignment of the licenses. Anyone who offers products or services with the name Linux has to purchase the license.

9. His Personal Mascot

Torvald’s mascot is a penguin nicknamed Tux. It has also been adopted as the mascot of the Linux kernel. The logo of the operating system, a plump penguin, is an open-source image, and no one owns it. It was designed by Larry Ewing in 1996 and further refined by Linus Torvalds.

10. He Married His Student

In 1993, Torvalds was teaching basic computer lessons at the University of Helsinki. He instructed his students to send him an email as a test (yes, composing email was a big deal then).

One of his students named Tove Monni responded with an email asking for a date. Fast forward to a couple of years later, they got married and have three daughters. The reboot system call of the Linux kernel accepts their dates of birth (entered in hexadecimal) as magic values.

11. Steve Jobs Tried To Recruit Linus Torvalds

In 2000, Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs invited Torvalds to Apple’s Cupertino campus and tried to hire him. Jobs wanted him to work at Apple and drop the on-going Linux project. Torvalds turned down the offer and continued to work on Linux. Besides, he didn’t like Mac OS’s Mach kernel.

It was the time when Apple was heavily investing in Mac OS X, which would later serve as the foundation of iPhones and iPads.

12. An Asteroid is Named After Him

The Linux OS was used by Spacewatch and many other asteroid surveys for their data collection and analysis. To honor Linus for this creation, the asteroid 9793 Torvalds was named after him in 1996.

In 2003, an asteroid moon Linus was named after him, which orbits a large M-type asteroid 22 Kalliope. The name was also meant to honor the Peanuts comic strip character, Linus van Pelt.

13. His Other Notable Creations

Git: Linus also created Git, a distributed version control system for tracking changes in source code during software development.

Till 2005, he used the proprietary software named BitKeeper for version control in the Linux kernel. When Bitkeeper closed its free service, Torvalds wrote his own free-software [Git] for coordinating work among developers and tracking changes in any set of files.

Subsurface: Torvalds loves scuba diving. He even built a program for logging and planning scuba dives. It is called subsurface. It allows divers to keep track of their performance and represent the data both graphically and in tabular format.

14. Torvalds Doesn’t Like C++

Linus Torvalds posted a message on a techie list stating that C++ is a horrible language. According to him, the library features of C++, such as Boost and STL, are inefficient and unstable. These features force developers to rewrite apps once they realize their program depends too much on the nice object models around it.

There are numerous rebuttals to Torvalds’s attacks. Many companies believe that the benefits of C++ outweigh the drawbacks, and the language is not going away anytime soon.

15. He Detests Social Media

Linus is not a big fan of modern social media like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. In an interview with Robert Young, he told social media is a disease, and it seems to encourage bad behavior.

Google Plus was the only social media platform he ever used, where he spent some time reviewing gadgets.

16. He Has Often Been Accused Of Being Uncivil To Other Programmers

Torvalds is also known as a sharp-tongued dude that has notorious tantrums on the Linux Kernel Mailing List, where the majority of the announcements, debates, and discussions over the kernel take place.

Although he is brilliant, funny, and not at all a bad person, he doesn’t put up with developers who fall short of his high expectations. Sometimes, technical discussions devolve into passionate verbal fistfights complete with insults.

Read: 20 Greatest Computer Programmers Of All Time

17. He Is Not A Programmer Anymore

While Linux kernel has nearly 28 million lines of code in its Git repository, Torvalds has written less than 1 percent of it. He wrote most of the core functionality, such as scheduler, memory management, system call interface. As of 2020, the top contributors by email domain are Intel and Red Hat.

These days, Torvalds is a code manager and maintainer, not a developer. Most of his personal contribution involves merging code written by others, with little programming. He has the highest authority to decide what functions should (or shouldn’t) be incorporated into the Linus kernel.

Read: 18 Best Linux Games | Premium and Open Source

18. Torvalds’ Net Worth

It’s quite hard to calculate the net worth of Linus Torvalds or how much he earns because he has never made this information public.

However, we do know that the two leading developers of Linux-based software, VA Linux and Red Hat, presented Torvalds with stock options in 1999. Both companies went public in the same year, and Linus’s share value temporality soared to US$20 million.

19. Famous Quotes

An infinite number of monkeys typing into GNU emacs would never make a good program.

Intelligence is the ability to avoid doing work, yet getting the work done.

Non-technical questions sometimes don’t have an answer at all.

I may make jokes about Microsoft at times, but at the same time, I think the Microsoft hatred is a disease

20. Awards and Media Recognition

Torvalds has received dozens of prestigious awards, including the IEEE Masaru Ibuka Consumer Electronics Award (2018), the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award (2014), Internet Hall of Fame (2012), and Vollum Award (2005).

Read: 12 Best Linux Distros You Should Try

Furthermore, he has been recognized by Time Magzine as one of the most influential people in the world (2004) and one of the revolutionary heroes of the past six decades (2006). The Britannica Guide listed him among the 100 most influential inventors of all time in 2010.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a professional science and technology journalist and a big fan of AI, machines, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out about his latest projects, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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