In 1983, Richard Stallman founded the GNU Project, with the goal of developing a complete Unix-like operating system composed entirely of free software. By the beginning of the 1990s, GNU had produced or collected most of the necessary components of this system libraries, compilers, text editors, a Unix shell except for the core component, the kernel. The GNU project began developing a kernel, the GNU Hurd, in 1990, based on the Mach microkernel, but the development of this Mach-based design proved difficult and proceeded slowly.
Meanwhile, in 1991, another kernel was begun as a hobby by Finnish university student Linus Torvalds while attending the University of Helsinki. Torvalds originally used Minix on his own computer, a simplified Unix-like system written by Andrew Tanenbaum for teaching operating system design. However, Tanenbaum did not permit others to extend his operating system, leading Torvalds to create a replacement for Minix.
Originally, Torvalds called his kernel “Freax” for “free” and “freak” and with the often-used X in the names of Unix-like systems. The name “Linux” was coined by Ari Lemmke, who administered an FTP server belonging to the Finnish University Network; he invented the name Linux for the directory from which Torvalds’ project was first available for download.
A graphic history of Unix systems. Linux is a Unix-type system but its source code does not descend from the original Unix.
At first a computer running Minix was necessary in order to configure and install Linux. Initial versions of Linux also required another operating system to be present in order to boot from a hard disk, but soon there were independent boot loaders such as LILO. The Linux system quickly surpassed Minix in functionality; Torvalds and other early Linux kernel developers adapted their work for the GNU components and user-space programs to create a complete, fully functional, and free (as in freedom) operating system.
Today, Torvalds continues to direct the development of the kernel, while other subsystems such as the GNU components continue to be developed separately. Other groups and companies combine and distribute these components with additional application software in the form of Linux distributions.