Why a penguin? Recapping a slice of Linux history

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CertMag is back with fresh data from our recent Linux Salary Survey.Linux is a surprisingly successful operating system. Despite many of its distros having no graphical interface and/or not running with popular applications like Microsoft Office or the Adobe creative suite, it’s still managed to gather more than 80 million users by some estimates, and Linux support alone pulls in more than $1 billion in revenue each year. (That’s pretty impressive for an open-source system!) All of this leads to one important question …

What’s up with the penguin?

This amiable little fellow is the recognizable face of Linux, which totally makes sense. Linux is supposed to be powerful and flexible, which are two things that certainly come to mind when describing a penguin. Or maybe a python? No, now that I think of it, definitely a python. Not a penguin. Penguins are, in fact, slow, clumsy and weirdly adorable. There are operating systems that are like that, but it’s not what you’d typically say of Linux.

Well, the penguin is fat, slow, and his name is Tux, thank you very much. He definitely doesn’t cut a very intimidating figure, and everybody knows it. In fact, from the sketch, this particular penguin kind of looks like it “gorged itself, and [has] just burped.” No, that’s not a competitor disparaging the mascot, that’s actually a direct quote from the beautiful mind behind Linux, Linus Torvalds himself. To continue on with Torvalds’ musings:

“It’s sitting there with a beatific smile — the world is a good place to be when you have just eaten a few gallons of raw fish and you can feel another ‘burp’ coming. Not FAT, but you should be able to see that it’s sitting down, because it’s really too stuffed to stand up. Think ‘bean bag’ here.”

So, basically, yes — Tux is derpy as the dickens and yes, he’s supposed to be that way. But how did he even get this calling in the first place?

It all started back in 1996, when Linux was just becoming its own entity. Some of Linux’s earliest supporters, including Torvalds himself, came to the realization that Linux needed a mascot. So, the brainstorming began. Some of the early suggestions included things like eagles and sharks, until Torvalds himself mentioned that he was fond of penguins.

After that, the brainstorming took a new tack: How do you make a penguin cool? How do you make it noble? Somebody suggested sketching a penguin holding up the globe. To this, Torvalds responded:

“Now, when you think about penguins, first take a deep calming breath, and then think ‘cuddly.’ Take another breath, and think ‘cute.’ Go back to ‘cuddly’ for a while (and go on breathing), then think ‘contented’ … so we should be thinking of a lovable, cuddly, stuffed penguin sitting down after having gorged itself on herring. Still with me?”

In fact, Torvalds may not have been in his right mind. He has occasionally told the story of being on vacation and finding himself bitten by a “ferocious” penguin, which caused him to contract the definitely-real disease ‘penguinitis,’* which has the symptom of making one “stay awake at nights just thinking about penguins and feeling great love towards them.” Ahem. For whatever reason, the idea of a penguin stuck, and quickly caught people’s imagination.

Larry Ewing actually came up with the now-famous sketch using GIMP (appropriately enough), and it was a mailing list subscriber named James Hughes who decided the name should be “Tux,” which supposedly stands for Torvald is UniX. Yeah, we recognize that acronyms don’t work like that, just roll with it. Ever since,, the baffling bird has been the mascot of the world’s most popular open-source operating system.

Why does Linus have a penguin for a mascot? Funny you should ask.

Linus Torvalds

Any misgivings were put aside by Tux’s quick popularity. Since his inception, Tux has appeared in many forms, including plush toys of all sizes, tee-shirts, Lego statues, and even as a video game character. It looks like this fat, contented penguin is here to stay, and we won’t begrudge him his legacy.

In some ways he’s actually quite fitting. He’s not assertive and not terribly marketable, be he’s content and it makes you smile to look at him. He’s the product of a community who can look you right in the eye and say, “Yeah, we know it’s not the common way, but it’s our way, and we’re sticking to it.’ That’s the kind of quiet fervor and laid-back individualism that Tux seems to represent perfectly, right down to being able to poke a little fun at itself. In Torvalds’ own words:

“Don’t take the penguin too seriously. It’s supposed to be kind of goofy and fun, that’s the whole point. Linux is supposed to be goofy and fun (It’s also the best operating system out there, but it’s goofy and fun at the same time!)”

Here’s to you, Tux. Keep flying high. Figuratively.

*Disclaimer: Penguinitis is not a real disease. Sorry.

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David Telford

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Telford is a short-attention-span renaissance man and university student. His current project is the card game MatchTags, which you can find on Facebook and Kickstarter.

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