Linus Torvalds is the world's most famous computer programmer. He is the founder and coordinator of Linux, the Unix-like operating system that is beginning to revolutionize the computer industry.
Linus Benedict Torvalds was born on December 28, 1969 in Helsinki, the capital and largest city in Finland. He was named after Linus Pauling, the famous physical chemist and Nobel Prize winner.
Torvalds had a fairly happy childhood despite the fact that his parents were divorced when he was very young. He lived with his mother and also with his grandparents. His emphasis was placed on reading from an early age.
It was his grandfather, Leo Toerngvist, a professor of statistics at the University of Helsinki, who had the greatest influence on the young Linus. In the mid-1970s, Toerngvist bought one of the first personal computers, a Commodore Vic 20. Torvalds soon became bored with the few programs that were available for it, and he thus began to create new ones, first using the BASIC programming language and then using the much more difficult but also more powerful language.
Programming and mathematics became Torvalds' passions.
In 1987 Torvalds used his savings to buy his first computer, a Sinclair QL. This was one of the world's first 32-bit computers for home use. With its Motorola 68008 processor (the part of the computer that performs logic operations and also referred to as a central processing unit or CPU) running at 7.5MHz (megahertz) and 128KB (kilobytes) of RAM (random access memory), this was a big step up from his grandfather's Commodore Vic 20. However, he soon became unhappy with it because of it could not be reprogrammed due to the operating system residing in ROM (read-only memory).
In 1988 Torvalds followed in the footsteps of his parents and enrolled in the University of Helsinki, the premier institution of higher education in Finland. By that time he was already an accomplished programmer, and, naturally, he majored in computer science. In 1990 he took his first class in the C programming language, the language that he would soon use to write the Linux kernel (i.e., the core of the operating system).
In early 1991 he purchased an IBM-compatible personal computer with a 33MHz Intel 386 processor and a huge 4MB of memory. This processor greatly appealed to him because it represented a tremendous improvement over earlier Intel chips. As intrigued as he was with the hardware, however, Torvalds was disappointed with the MS-DOS operating system that came with it. That operating system had not advanced sufficiently to even begin to take advantage of the vastly improved capabilities of the 386 chip, and he thus strongly preferred the much more powerful and stable UNIX operating system that he had become accustomed to using on the university's computers.
Consequently, Torvalds attempted to obtain a version of UNIX for his
new computer. Fortunately (for the world), he could not find even a basic system for less than US$5,000. He also considered MINIX, a small clone of UNIX that was created by operating systems expert Andrew Tanenbaum in the Netherlands to teach UNIX to university students. However, although much more powerful than MS-DOS and designed to run on Intel x86 processors, MINIX still had some serious disadvantages. They included the facts that not all of the source code was made public, it lacked some of the features and performance of UNIX and there was a not-insignificant (although cheaper than for many other operating systems) licensing fee.
Torvalds thus decided to create a new operating system from scratch that was based on both MINIX and UNIX.
Torvalds originally gave his new operating system the working name Linux (from Linus' MINIX).
Linux got big boost when competitors of Microsoft began taking it seriously. Oracle, Intel, Netscape, Corel and others announced plans to support Linux as an inexpensive alternative to Microsoft Windows. Major corporations soon realized the potential of Linux, and they quickly adopted it for their Internet servers and networks.
Perhaps the biggest force for Linux's adoption in the corporate world has been IBM's official blessing and massive support. This included a 2001 announcement of a commitment of a billion dollars for Linux research, development and promotion.
Among the advantages of using Linux in embedded systems are portability (i.e., ability to run on almost any type of processor), flexibility (i.e., ease of configuring), low cost (i.e., no licensing fees) and the availability of efficient and low cost development tools.
But Torvalds' success was also due to the fact that he was the right person at the right time.
Torvalds is now working on the Linux kernel full-time for Open Source
Development Lab (OSDL), which is based in Beaverton, Oregon. Founded in 2000 and supported by a global consortium of computer companies, including IBM, OSDL describes its mission as "becoming the recognized center of gravity for Linux and the central body dedicated to accelerating the use of Linux for enterprise computing."