Why is the Linux mascot a penguin?

If you’re a Linux fan, you may have seen “Tux”, the friendly penguin mascot for the operating system. But why penguin and why dachshunds? We will explore the history of the semiaquatic bird mascot with a little help from Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux himself.

Linus Torvalds loves penguins

Unlike commercial operating systems supported by many million-dollar marketing campaigns, early versions of Linux had no formal branding. Linux began as a hobby project of Finnish university student Linus Torvalds in 1991, and a group of volunteers around the world developed and maintained it in its early years. Therefore, when developing the public image of Linux, its developers took a very informal route: discussing it in the email list of the Linux-Kernel group.

Of course, the voice of one person – Torvalds – carried much more weight than others, and this voice loved a certain kind of animal. In the early 1990s, Torvalds often playfully mentioned penguins on a mailing list. What attracted him to birds as a potential logo?

“Penguins are just exotic enough to be interesting but famous enough not to be unknown,” Torvalds said in an email to How-To Geek.

In particular, Torvalds’ fondness for penguins became legendary after a 1995 interview with Linux Journal, where Torvalds mentioned that he was bitten by a penguin while visiting a zoo in Australia.

“The most interesting parts of Australia were not computers at all, but small and furry (and sometimes feathered) animals. I was bitten by a penguin in Canberra (“Killer Penguins Strike Again”), but he was very small and timid.”

The penguin’s bite only seemed to heighten Torvalds’ playful interest in birds. On April 29, 1996, Torvalds announced the release of 1.3.97 of the Linux kernel and jokingly referred to it as the “Penguin Killer” release.

However, Torvalds says the penguin bite episode was not Tux’s main source: “I used to like penguins, too,” Torvalds told How-To Geek. “It’s true that I was bitten by a (very timid) penguin at the Australian National Zoo, but I think one of the inspirations – and perhaps more important – was Aardman Studios.”

How did the tuxedo come about?

By early 1996, the idea of ​​an official Linux logo had been in the air for several years. People made a lot of layouts and fancy ray-traced “Linux” letters with the graphics technology available at the time, and someone even tried to add a platypus to the mix.

On May 1, 1996, someone on the Linux-Kernel mailing list shared  another image of a potential Linux logo, and in response, Linux contributor Alan Cox asked for a picture of a penguin — a reference to Torvalds’ obsession — wearing boxing gloves. breaking through the BSD Daemon .

Shortly thereafter, Torvalds provided a mailing list with an image of a plasticine penguin created by Aardman Animations, the studio of Wallace and Gromit . “Aardman had a few clay penguins (like The Wrong Trousers),” Torvalds tells How-To Geek. “Although this penguin was not so much a ‘happy penguin at ease after eating a lot of herring’, but more of a Bond movie supervillain penguin.”

Programmer Larry Ewing (who worked on the GIMP graphics editor project) accepted Cox’s initial challenge and drew a penguin with boxing gloves. Others have also submitted images of penguins. Torvalds offered constructive feedback on penguin attempts made by others thus far, recommending a new approach with a more gentle, contented penguin “stuffed to the brim with herring”.

Ewing returned to the drawing board. After a multi-step process honed over time in the GIMP graphics editor—from black and white sketching to colorful illustration with shading—Ewing designed what we now call the archetypal Tuxedo Penguin. He met Torvalds’ criteria: plump, non-aggressive, contented animal – and the image stuck.

Tux got its name from James Hughes on June 10, 1996, when he wrote on the Linux-Kernel mailing list that it stands for “(T)orvolds (U)ni(X)”. Tux, often short for “tuxedo”, is also a reference to the fact that certain species of penguins look like they are wearing tuxedos due to the coloration of their feathers.

Not everyone liked the penguin. Some on the mailing list were unhappy with the choice of animals (“Anything but penguins please”), and someone else mentioned that the name “Penguin” was taken over by an outside utility. But Torvalds’ voice and playful influence won out, and over time, Ewing’s subtle drawing became the official image of Tux, the Linux mascot.

The legend of the penguins continues

Since the 1990s, knowledge about Dachshund (and Torvalds’ encounter with penguins at the zoo) has only grown. By 2007, the Canberra Zoo, where Torvalds was first bitten by a penguin, had a plaque commemorating the episode, reading “We believe the original Dachshund is still in this enclosure.”

Interestingly, Torvalds says that, canonically, Tux is not a real penguin at all. “Penguin Linux is not exactly anatomically correct,” he told us. “It’s very similar to plush toys (and in fact people ended up making plush toys based on it, and not just for Linux conferences).” Maybe that’s why people send him stuffed penguins all the time, as shown in this YouTube video .

In a mid-2000s email , often cited online, Torvalds said, “Don’t take the penguin too seriously. It’s supposed to be silly and fun, that’s the whole point.” He went on to say that Linux should be stupid and fun. He wanted to make sure Linux didn’t take itself too seriously.

“I wanted a happy, nice logo, not a corporate one,” Torvalds says today. “And I think the penguin worked really well.”

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