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We <3 Linus Torvalds

The most ground-breaking and influential computer engineer that you probably never heard of.

In many ways, Linus Torvalds is the Nikola Tesla of our time. Tesla was a brilliant mechanical engineer; Torvalds is a brilliant computer engineer. Where Tesla championed free, unlimited electricity, Torvalds supports free and open code. Where Tesla’s AC motor is in everything from sewing machines to ceiling fans, Torvalds’ work is found in thousands of devices, from every Android smartphone to nearly every Internet router and super computer on the planet.

But while the long-deceased Nikola Tesla has seen a recent resurgence in notoriety, the living Torvalds remains in relative obscurity. Sure, he’s famous amongst computer programmers, and his work is in a higher percentage of devices than the efforts of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. But he isn’t the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a billionaire, or the charismatic leader of a technology-based cult.

Linus Torvalds speaking at the LinuxCon Europe 2014 in Düsseldorf.

Linus Torvalds speaking at the LinuxCon Europe 2014 in Düsseldorf.

So who is Linus Torvalds?

In short, Torvalds is the creator and chief architect of the Linux kernel, the most important piece of free and open source software in existence. He created Linux in 1991 as a kind of study exercise while getting his master’s degree in computer science at the University of Helsinki. Torvalds had been working with the published code of an educational operating system called Minix, but he didn’t like that it was expensive and that its licenses were only available to educational institutions. So Torvalds created his own kernel, Linux, and he made the code available to anyone.



What is a kernel?

A kernel is a crucial part of modern operating systems. It acts as an arbiter, pausing and resuming programs as needed so they use only their fair share of the microprocessor cores. It also manages the file systems and prevents conflicts between programs accessing hardware resources. The kernel keeps programs from accessing resources they shouldn’t—both to prevent accidental interference with other programs and to provide additional security in case part of the system is compromised. Remember back in the ’90s where a problem in one program could bring down your whole computer? It was because desktop operating systems didn’t provide this protection between programs. Linux and other modern kernels systems do.

The kernel also relieves programs of the burden of understanding the differences between every different kind of hardware it might run on. It’s like a multilingual translator, providing a common way to access computer resources that’s largely independent of the actual hardware installed. Back in the olden days, each program had to know the specifics of, say, every type of sound card it might possibly work with, just to play audio.

Today, the Linux kernel is the most popular operating system kernel in the world. And the best part? It’s free—as in freedom.

What is open source?

Calling software “open source” means that its source code is available for modification and improvement by anyone. When Torvalds released Linux, he published it under the General Public License enabling anyone to use, modify, and distribute the code. He didn’t try to sell it or keep it a secret. And he made sure that anyone who distributes modified Linux code is required to share their changes, ensuring that every improvement would be available to everyone who used Linux.

In the past 10 years, more than 10,000 developers have contributed to the Linux kernel and it has become the standard kernel for everyone from Google developers to novice programmers modding their first machine. Unlike the myth we tell ourselves about Tesla, Torvalds isn’t a lone eccentric genius. He’s basically just a good guy who stuck to his guns. Rather than seek out fame and (even more) fortune, Torvalds still just wants to make it easier for everyone to improve programs and share the rewards.

Got you hooked? Here’s more:


Linux & the Large Hadron Collider
The world’s most powerful atom-smasher is run with Linux


Is it Line-ux? or Lynn-ux?
“Hello, this is Linus Torvalds and I pronounce Linux as Linux.”


An Interview With Linus Torvalds
Torvalds reminisces about his 20 years working on Linux

Image of Linus Torvalds, Linux Foundation Fellow, Linux Foundation, USA at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin, China 2012 via World Economic Forum

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