Home » If Linux is only a kernel, then how were its first versions used (without distribution)?

If Linux is only a kernel, then how were its first versions used (without distribution)?


In the early stages of Linux, Linus Torvalds released the Linux kernel source in an alpha state to signal to others that work towards a new Unix-like kernel was in development. By that time, as @RalfFriedi stated, the Linux kernel was cross-compiled in Minix.

As for usable software, Linus Torvalds also ported utilities to distribute along with the Linux kernel in order for others to test it. These programs were mainly bash and gcc, as described by LINUX’s History by Linus Torvalds. Per the the Usenet post:

From: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)  
Newsgroups: comp.os.minix
Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?
Summary: small poll for my new operating system  
Message-ID: <1991Aug25.205708.9541@klaava.Helsinki.FI>
Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT
Organization: University of Helsinki

Hello everybody out there using minix –

I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and
professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing
since april, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat
(same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).

I’ve currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40), and things seem to
work. This implies that I’ll get something practical within a few
months, and I’d like to know what features most people would want.
Any suggestions are welcome, but I won’t promise I’ll implement them

Linus distributed the kernel and core utility programs in a diskette format for users to try it and possibly to contribute to it.

Afterwards, there were H.J. Lu’s Boot-root floppy diskettes. If this could be called a distribution, then it would gain the fame of being the first distribution capable of being installed on hard disk.

These were two 5¼” diskette images containing the Linux kernel and the
minimum tools required to get started. So minimal were these tools
that to be able to boot from a hard drive required editing its master
boot record with a hex editor.


Eventually the number of utilities grew larger than the maximum size of a diskette.

MCC Interim Linux was the first Linux distribution to be used by people with slightly less technical skills by introducing an automated installation and new utilities such as fdisk.

MCC Interim Linux was a Linux distribution first released in February
1992 by Owen Le Blanc of the Manchester Computing Centre (MCC), part
of the University of Manchester.

The first release of MCC Interim Linux was based on Linux 0.12 and
made use of Theodore Ts’o’s ramdisk code to copy a small root image to
memory, freeing the floppy drive for additional utilities

He also stated his distributions were “unofficial experiments”,
describing the goals of his releases as being:

  • To provide a simple installation procedure.
  • To provide a more complete installation procedure.
  • To provide a backup/recovery service.
  • To back up his (then) current system.
  • To compile, link, and test every binary file under the current versions of the kernel, gcc, and libraries.
  • To provide a stable base system, which can be installed in a short time, and to which other software can be added with relatively little

After the MCC precursor, SLS was the first distribution offering the X Window System in May of 1992. Notably, the competitor to SLS, the mythical Yggdrasil, debuted in December of 1992.


Other major distributors followed as we know them today, notably Slackware in July of 1993 (based on SLS) and Debian in December of 1993 until the first official version 1.1 release in December of 1995.

Image credits:
* Boot/Root diskettes image from: https://www.maketecheasier.com/
* yggdrasil diskette image from: https://yggdrasilblog.wordpress.com/

In my case (c.1994) Linux came built as images suitable for 3.5″ floppies (1.44MB), probably the follow-on to the 5 1/4″ images mentioned above, and each has a specific set of drivers compiled in (network, VGA, etc.). So you had to know what you needed and sort of hope that you had suitable hardware.

After you booted, and could either connect to LAN or dialup via modem, then you went and found the software you needed (FTP, gopher, etc. — this was right at the start of the “web” and search engines didn’t really exist yet, so you had to know where to go or who to ask) and built it yourself.

I was ecstatic when I was able to boot my 486DX and dial into my university network (56k!) and mount an AFS share on machine at home…those were the days. 😉

The short version

At the time that Linus started his kernel, the Gnu project had a working Operating system, except for a working kernel. So when people looked around, they found all of the tools that they needed: gcc (and friend: binutils), bash (and friends gnu-utils), emacs, …

They would then build their own system, from the parts.

It is where this joke comes from “If MS-Windows was an aeroplane, it would climb to 10 thousand feet, and then explode killing everyone in side, but at least you don’t have to build your own aircraft before you depart.”

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