GNU is an operating system and an extensive collection of free computer software which is licensed under the GNU Project's own General Public License (GPL). Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU Project, explains:
AI Lab community
When I started working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971, I became part of a software-sharing community that had existed for many years. Sharing of software was not limited to our particular community; it is as old as computers, just as sharing of recipes is as old as cooking. But we did it more than most.
The AI Lab used a timesharing operating system called ITS (the Incompatible Timesharing System) that the lab's staff hackers had designed and written in assembler language for the Digital PDP-10, one of the large computers of the era. As a member of this community, an AI Lab staff system hacker, my job was to improve this system. (The use of “hacker” to mean “security breaker” is a confusion on the part of the mass media. We hackers refuse to recognise that meaning, and continue using the word to mean someone who loves to program, someone who enjoys playful cleverness, or the combination of the two.)
We did not call our software “free software”, because that term did not yet exist; but that is what it was. Whenever people from another university or a company wanted to port and use a program, we gladly let them. If you saw someone using an unfamiliar and interesting program, you could always ask to see the source code, so that you could read it, change it, or cannibalise parts of it to make a new program.
Collapse of the community
The situation changed drastically in the early 1980s when Digital discontinued the PDP-10 series. Its architecture, elegant and powerful in the 60s, could not extend naturally to the larger address spaces that were becoming feasible in the 80s. This meant that nearly all of the programs composing ITS were obsolete.
The AI Lab hacker community had already collapsed, not long before. In 1981, the spin-off company Symbolics had hired away nearly all of the hackers from the AI Lab, and the depopulated community was unable to maintain itself. (The book "Hackers", by Steve Levy, describes these events, as well as giving a clear picture of this community in its prime.) When the AI Lab bought a new PDP-10 in 1982, its administrators decided to use Digital's nonfree timesharing system instead of ITS.
Stark moral choice
With my community gone, to continue as before was impossible. Instead, I faced a stark moral choice.
The easy choice was to join the proprietary software world, signing non-disclosure agreements and promising not to help my fellow hacker. Most likely I would also be developing software that was released under non-disclosure agreements, thus adding to the pressure on other people to betray their fellows too.
I could have made money this way, and perhaps amused myself writing code. But I knew that at the end of my career, I would look back on years of building walls to divide people, and feel I had spent my life making the world a worse place.
I had already experienced being on the receiving end of a non-disclosure agreement, when someone refused to give me and the MIT AI Lab the source code for the control program for our printer. (The lack of certain features in this program made use of the printer extremely frustrating.) So I could not tell myself that non-disclosure agreements were innocent. I was very angry when he refused to share with us; I could not turn around and do the same thing to everyone else.
Another choice, straightforward but unpleasant, was to leave the computer field. That way my skills would not be misused, but they would still be wasted. I would not be culpable for dividing and restricting computer users, but it would happen nonetheless.
So I looked for a way that a programmer could do something for the good. I asked myself, was there a program or programs that I could write, so as to make a community possible once again?
The answer was clear: what was needed first was an operating system. That is the crucial software for starting to use a computer. With an operating system, you can do many things; without one, you cannot run the computer at all. With a free operating system, we could again have a community of cooperating hackers — and invite anyone to join. And anyone would be able to use a computer without starting out by conspiring to deprive his or her friends.
As an operating system developer, I had the right skills for this job. So even though I could not take success for granted, I realised that I was elected to do the job. I chose to make the system compatible with Unix so that it would be portable, and so that Unix users could easily switch to it. The name GNU was chosen, following a hacker tradition, as a recursive acronym for “GNU's Not Unix.” It is pronounced as one syllable with a hard g.
An operating system does not mean just a kernel, barely enough to run other programs. In the 1970s, every operating system worthy of the name included command processors, assemblers, compilers, interpreters, debuggers, text editors, mailers, and much more. ITS had them, Multics had them, VMS had them, and Unix had them. The GNU operating system would include them too.
Later I heard these words, attributed to Hillel:
- If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
- If I am only for myself, what am I?
- If not now, when?
The Gnu Song
Development of the GNU operating system was initiated by Richard Stallman while he worked at MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. It was called the GNU Project, and was publicly announced on 27 September 1983, on the net.unix-wizards and net.usoft newsgroups by Stallman. Software development began on 5 January 1984, when Stallman quit his job at the Lab so that they could not claim ownership or interfere with distributing GNU components as free software. Richard Stallman chose the name by using various plays on words, including "The Gnu Song" by Flanders and Swann.