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Stallman the Thinker

Stallman the Thinker

Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland

Richard Stallman, founder of the free-software movement, in a reflective moment at Trinity College Dublin. Stallman visited Ireland on the run-up to the European elections to lobby against software patents in Europe.

A bit playful and eccentric, the 51-year-old Stallman worked in the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in the early 1980s where he watched over the installation of an updated mainframe computer. It was a traumatic event for Stallman, for reasons described in his book of essays, Free Software, Free Society. For more than a decade Stallman and his colleagues had been writing and improving the software that had run on the predecessor machine. When the new computer arrived, all their work went up in smoke. The new machine came with its own proprietary operating system, whose source code was a carefully guarded secret. To his horror Stallman learned that he and his community of developers would no longer be permitted to tinker with it.

This approach was worse than infantilising, in Stallman's view. It was "antisocial," "unethical," and "simply wrong." Stallman decided to devise his own operating system, whose source code would be free and open for all to examine and critique and modify. He would call it GNU, which stood for "GNU's Not Unix." (It's pronounced with a hard "g" and it rhymes with "canoe.")

Stallman's GNU project produced many of the higher-level functions of an operating system but as the 1990s dawned he had still not yet gotten down to the kernel. For that, he depended upon the work of Linus Torvalds.

Portions extracted directly from "Gunning for Linux" by Roger Parloff in Fortune, May 17, 2004.
Picture by Bernie Goldbach using a Fuji S602Z camera in Dublin, Ireland.
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