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When talking about Linux, users often think about the distributions they use — Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, openSUSE, and so on. But in the beginning, there were no Linux distributions — users had to go through quite a bit of fuss to have a working Linux-based system. The first distributions haven’t survived the test of time, but one of the earliest — Slackware Linux — is still going strong after nearly 18 years.

The first Linux distribution was MCC Interim Linux, and it was followed by the predecessor to Slackware. Called Soft Landing Systems (SLS) Linux, the first distro had a few problems that a student named Patrick Volkerding decided to fix. It preceded Debian by a short time, though at one point Volkerding says that he and Ian Murdock discussed merging the two distributions.

How did Volkerding decide to do a Linux distribution? He didn’t, exactly. According to an interview, he started by fixing up SLS to deal with some of the problems that it had when he was installing it in the PC lab. “I put together improved SLS releases for my professor through version 0.99pl9. By this time I’d gotten ahead of SLS on maybe half of the packages in the distribution, and had done some reconfiguration on most of the remaining half. I’d done some coding myself to fix long-standing problems like a finger bug that would say users had ‘Never logged in’ whenever they weren’t online. The difference between SLS and Slackware was starting to be more than just cosmetic.”

One of the things that Slackware showed, very early on, was the importance of having good licensing. Originally, Volkerding didn’t plan on doing Slackware for long and simply was patching SLS. But the original author of SLS (Peter MacDonald) didn’t license the SLS installation scripts for distribution — so Volkerding was forced to write his own.

Where does the name “Slackware” come from, anyway? It comes from a reference to the Church of the SubGenius and “Slack” otherwise known as “the sense of freedom, independence, and original thinking that comes when you stop worrying about personal goals.” Freedom, independence, and original thinking sound pretty much in line with a Linux distro, right?

Even though Slackware seems like a one-man show, it really isn’t. Volkerding has been its “Benevolent Dictator For Life” (long before Mark Shuttleworth took the title for Ubuntu… and before there was an Ubuntu), but a lot of contributors have helped with the effort. In his 1994 interview, Volkerding credits quite a few contributors for helping with various bits of the Slackware distribution.

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May 5th, 2011

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