A History of Free and Open Source - Introduction ~ by Peter H. Salus

by Pamela Jones

March 28 2005

Historian Peter H. Salus is writing "A History of Free and Open Source", and I'm delighted to tell you that he is going to be publishing it in serialized form here on Groklaw. We thought that, with ADTI back with its Grim Fairy Tales, it would be useful to tell the FOSS story truthfully and in a scholarly way, so readers now and historians in the future can rely on the facts. Here's the first installment, the Introduction, and I know you will enjoy it. Look for the next episode on the 6th or 7th of April and every Wednesday or Thursday after that.

Dr. Salus is the author of "A Quarter Century of UNIX" and several other books, including "HPL: Little Languages and Tools", "Big Book of Ipv6 Addressing Rfcs", "Handbook of Programming Languages (HPL): Imperative Programming Languages", "Casting the Net: From ARPANET to INTERNET and Beyond", and "The Handbook of Programming Languages (HPL): Functional, Concurrent and Logic Programming Languages". There is an interview with him, audio and video,"codebytes: A History of UNIX and UNIX Licences" which was done in 2001 at a USENIX conference. Dr. Salus has served as Executive Director of the USENIX Association.


The daemon, the gnu, and the penguin

A History of Free and Open Source

~ by Peter H. Salus


The activities of a distributed and unorganized band of scholars led to the conceptual revolution that produced the modern world. For example, Copernicus (1473-1543) observed the heavens and recorded his measurements. In 1563, Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) noted that Copernicus' figures weren't quite right, so, from 1577 to 1597, Tycho recorded extraordinarily accurate astronomical measurements. In 1599 Tycho moved from Denmark to Prague, where Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was his assistant, until he succeeded him in 1601, when Tycho died.

Copernicus established heliocentricity. Tycho found that circular orbits just didn't work, and devoted decades to better measurements, which Kepler later used to determine that the orbits were ellipses, not circles. (In 1610, Galileo [1564-1642] pointed out that one could observe phases on Venus, and that therefore Venus must be nearer the Sun than the Earth was.) And, Newton (1643-1727) showed us the force (gravity) that held everything in place.

Poland. Denmark. Austria. Italy. Germany. England. Despite the Papacy, the 30 Years' War, turmoil in the Netherlands, in France, and in England, thought moved in print and in correspondence. Though countries were at war and religions were in conflict, scientific exchange of ideas and sharing of data persisted.

During the Renaissance it could take months for findings to reach those interested in other countries. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries lengthy epistles between scholars were distributed to others beyond the addressees. Scientific journals followed. Thanks to the progress of communications media, it now takes seconds where it once took decades for an idea or a discovery to proliferate. The fact is undeniable: Invention and scholarship have been the motor driving the development of civilization and culture.

The revolution of knowledge has led us to exploration and discovery. The computer, the Internet, and the Web have led to a similar revolution. While certainly no computer user, Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Isaac McPherson (13 August 1813), wrote:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it.

My aim is to show how the advent of the computer and the Internet have given rise to the expansion of the academic/scholarly notions of sharing, and how this in turn has brought us free and open software, which will bring about a major change in the way we do business.

This effort is more than a history of Linux, of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), the Internet, software licensing, and myriad other topics. It will contain a number of histories within it, which (I hope) will serve as an antidote to the cloud of FUD stirred up by those who fear that change will mean that their businesses will fail (certainly more a sign of lack of imagination and flexibility than of anything else).

On the contrary: change yields opportunity. But change also requires adaptability. We are embarking on a new business model, which will change the way we do business as much as mass production and global electronic communication did over the 19th and 20th centuries.

Since 1990, there has been an insistent drumbeat of anti-FSF FUD. Since 2000, this has focused on Linux. Some examples of this are:

The remarks are noise. But though ludicrous, statements like these make businessfolk fearful. They then hug Windows the way a different Linus clutches his blanket. My goal here is to show a wider audience just what went into the creation of open source and its worldwide network of contributors and users over the past 50 years.

Over four centuries have passed since our static heliocentric universe was replaced by a dynamic one. Today, the business model that has persisted since the late eighteenth century is being replaced. Here's how it's happening.

08:46 AM EST

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