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PowerPedia:Linus Torvalds and Linux Open Source

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Linus Torvalds
Linus Torvalds
A brief history of the most famous open source project, as a case study for open sourcing energy technologies.

The following overview was composed by New Energy Congress member, Michael Riversong on Oct. 19-31, 2007.


Linux Foundations

Let's look at the original development of Linux, which is the most prominent of all open source products. It is the framework upon which a number of other open source programs depend.

Linus Torvalds put Linux together while a student in 1991. He used the only resource available to him at the time, an extremely limited, lame, basic computer made by Sinclair. You've probably never heard of Sinclair before, and for good reason.

There was a precedent for Linux. Its command structure is based on Unix, which was develooped by Bell Labs in the early 60s. Unix was incredibly complicated, and computers basically had to be built around it. The vision of Linux was to have something that could eventually be run on any computer right out of the box. That has happened.

Torvalds was not obsessed with the profit motive. Life support at the time was provided through a combination of his family and educational grants, just like most students. He allegedly had no social life and was able to live simply. All these things contributed to the development. Of course part of what made this possible was that the whole system was mental. Not a whole lot of hardware was needed. Inventors need to make note of this. There are ways to work around the need for heavy hardware.

Over the next several years, due to a simple invitation put out to some small user groups on the Internet, many people contributed to the development of Linux. It has been estimated that by 2001, when the system became commercially viable, approximately 150,000 people worldwide had made contributions.

Linux has always been freely available. Some companies add packaging and auxiliary software, but the core of the system remains standardized. Torvalds has done this through a combination of patents and administrative skills. He makes certain that only he gives final approval to anything put into public release.

You might wonder how he makes a living. Sometimes people have contributed money out of the blue. But mainly, computer companies have hired him outright, giving ample life support for him and his family. These companies get the benefits of his genius, and give him space to continue working on improvements to the overall Linux system.

Linux Distribution

Each group that provides a Linux distribution has its own way of doing things. In the monopolistic Windows world, one company controls all basic aspects of how computers operate and has become a sort of bottleneck in many ways. With Linux, it is possible to set up a distribution on any scale. What is meant by "distribution" is a package including the Linux core, which is always free, and auxiliary software programs as chosen and provided by the distributing organization. The Linux core is what allows someone to turn a computer on in the first place, and tells the computer how to relate with printers, mice, keyboards, and anything else that may be connected to a machine.

Any of these models could be reworked for the benefit of inventors.

Following are short profiles of some well-known Linux distributors and how they work:


This was originally developed mainly in Europe. They became a private company providing a lot of good open source software along with the basic Linux package. Many users were especially impressed with the way SuSe integrated with audio components, and also how easy it was to add software when needed. In 2004, they were bought out by Novell, an important computer networking system provider based in the USA. Now, Novell provides SuSe for free or as part of a larger networking service and software package.

Red Hat

A private company headquartered in North Carolina, Red Hat has one of the best reputations among Linux providers. For many years they sold complete systems for much less than Microsoft products. In 2004 they split their distributions. One, known as Fedora, is free on the Internet and also given away on disks. The other is much more sophisticated and is used by many corporations. Even though the core Linux system is free, Red Hat can sell their expertise in a yearly package that includes excellent technical support.


This venerable distribution is developed by a nonprofit foundation. Many volunteer computer programmers contribute constantly. A special way to install new additions to a system is included. Debian is always provided free. It is especially liked by programmers. A few consultants specialize in helping companies with installation and maintenance. Much of its support is by donations.


We all hope for "sugar daddies" who will unreservedly support a significant project. In this case, that's what happened. A nonprofit foundation was funded and set up in Brooklyn. They will give away, for free, any number of system installation disks to anyone who asks. Many community volunteer agencies are gravitating to this system.


Another nonprofit foundation distributes this system with a definite German flavor. Special versions for educational use are available, which are very useful in classrooms.


There are many more versions of Linux available, some for special purposes. A few names include Gentoo, Linspire, Xandros, Morphix, and Slackware. Each provider organization is unique.

Lesser-known Projects

In many cases, open source projects have originally been funded by the developers' day jobs. There are varying degrees of synergy between day jobs and such projects. In some cases, there is no relationship at all, and the work is exclusively done during off hours. Other developers have some freedom to devote work time to their pet projects. Often, this type of arrangement is kept confidential, even within a specific workplace. Sometimes workers in adjacent cubicles don't know about these projects. Therefore, it can be difficult to gather information about the financing of specific projects. Then some developers literally have no visible means of support!

Over time many projects follow an evolutionary path similar to that of Linux. An individual programmer starts things off, and may operate alone for some time. Eventually other developers make contributions. Some of those become close to the original developer and a group begins to coalesce. Later on, the group may incorporate as a nonprofit entity. Several known open source groups have followed this path. Myth TV, KDE, and Gnome seem to have done this.

Resources to facilitate these projects are often ephemeral. This fits in with how computers work. Some of the resources involved include server space, which can seem infinite, access to server-based programs, which are often shared with many unrelated projects, and bits of technical hardware which again are shared. This type of resource sharing may not seem immediately applicable to inventors. However, with the use of imagination there are many possibilities.

Three resources that inventors usually need which can be set up in a shared context would include accounting, legal expertise, and computer facilities. It is conceivable that existing schools and firms could be enrolled into open source invention projects and efficiently utilized. Community colleges could be excellent network node points in some areas, since they usually have existing auto repair, welding, and other industrial arts programs containing both students and instructors who could be helpful.

This idea could also be expanded into the gathering and provision of hardware components. These are often somewhat specialized and exotic. Now the Internet has reached a point where its resources could be used to coordinate gathering and distribution of parts. Some objects that come to mind in this context are metal casings, electronic controls, and electric motors. The big difference between computer open source and invention projects is the fact that the ultimate product is usually a working prototype with many material components. People with knowledge of material parts should be encouraged to form alliances with inventors and create new networks for component recycling.

Another type of resource network which needs to be developed is public relations and marketing. That's not always a big concern with computer open source groups, but it is necessary when distributing hardware artifacts. One model from the open source community worth mentioning is Source Forge. That's a large web site which carries numerous programs of varying usefulness and quality. Free downloads, shareware, and fully paid programs are all supported by this network. (The exact funding mechanism for Source Forge has not been found as of this writing.)

Invention, like any creative art, depends on individual inspiraiton and initiative. It is well known within the computer industry, and is true of any creative project, that the maximum number of people who can be involved in development is three. Any larger number tends to create bottlenecks and turmoil that get in the way of success. Therefore, in developing open source inventions, we cannot use the Chinese Communist model. Numerous faceless committees set up in endless layers will quickly stifle innovations. That said, the days of lone inventors working apart from society, and then plugging into the Capitalist system to market their devices and get rich, are long gone. This may happen in a few cases, but those should properly be regarded as flukes.

We are thus concerned with setting up groups similar to those already created by open source developers. These are formed in loose networks. Charity is a motivation in many ways, and its nature should be studied by all involved. Profit can be another motivation, but that may be incidental. This is a cultural innovation which has been pioneered in the computer world and can be applied in other areas. What we can use is this cultural model which allows for individual innovations combined with networks of others who can facilitate all other aspects of development and distribution. Charity, altruism, and networking have now been successfully modeled in the computer industry and are ready for transfer into other productive areas. This is the cultural and economic model for open source inventing.

See also

  • OS - List of open source energy projects

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