installing linux before distributions

i am not sure what triggered it, but i started diving into the public record of my early involvement with linux via the usenet archives on google and collection at, particularly the archives of the old linux-activists email list.

the first version of the linux kernel that i was able to run was 0.11. (the 0.10 kernel wouldn’t run on my machine because i still just had a monochrome monitor and mga video card.) at the time, the release consisted of two floppy disk images. the “boot” image went in first and was the linux kernel. once the kernel was loaded, you had to pop in the “root” image which had a basic collection of utilities that you could use to install the system.

there was no networking support in the kernel yet, so “installing” to a hard drive basically consisted of setting up a couple of partitions for the kernel and root disk, and copying things into place. there was a utility called “mtools” that could read DOS-formatted disks or partitions, but what i often did was just dump tar files to a floppy from DOS and read them back after rebooting into my linux partition. eventually you could bootstrap your way into having some sort of serial communications so you could use a modem to dial out and transfer files with something fancy like kermit. (i think we had hardwired serial connections in our dorm rooms at harvey mudd college when i first started working with linux.)

at the time, there were no other distributions. gcc had been ported and you could download the binaries and then start compiling anything else you could find. people would upload things they had compiled to and, the two hubs of linux distribution. my first mail to the linux-activists list was saying that i had ported unzip and zoo and some other things to linux. (which probably did not involve much porting, really.)

i don’t have records of how this happened, but somehow i volunteered to take over maintenance of the “root” image from linus, and so the official release of linux 0.95 was a boot disk (kernel) from linus and a root disk from me. there was an INSTALL shell script which you could use to get things set up on a hard drive partition. we did a couple of releases that way, and then distributions kind of rapidly filled the space, starting with mcc interim linux.

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