My Linux story: Learning Linux in the 90s

This is the story of how I learned Linux before the age of WiFi, when distributions came in the form of a CD.
143 readers like this
143 readers like this
Sky with clouds and grass

Flickr user: theaucitron (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Most people probably don't remember where they, the computing industry, or the everyday world were in 1996. But I remember that year very clearly. I was a sophomore in high school in the middle of Kansas, and it was the start of my journey into free and open source software (FOSS).

I'm getting ahead of myself here. I was interested in computers even before 1996. I was born and raised on my family's first Apple ][e, followed many years later by the IBM Personal System/2. (Yes, there were definitely some generational skips along the way.) The IBM PS/2 had a very exciting feature: a 1200 baud Hayes modem.

I don't remember how, but early on, I got the phone number of a local BBS. Once I dialed into it, I could get a list of other BBSes in the local area, and my adventure into networked computing began.

In 1995, the people lucky enough to have a home internet connection spent less than 30 minutes a month using it. That internet was nothing like our modern services that operate over satellite, fiber, CATV coax, or any version of copper lines. Most homes dialed in with a modem, which tied up their phone line. (This was also long before cellphones were pervasive, and most people had just one home phone line.) I don't think there were many independent internet service providers (ISPs) back then, although that may have depended upon where you were located, so most people got service from a handful of big names, including America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy.

And the service you did get was very slow; even at dial-up's peak evolution at 56K, you could only expect to get a maximum of about 3.5 Kbps. If you wanted to try Linux, downloading a 200MB to 800MB ISO image or (more realistically) a disk image set was a dedication to time, determination, and lack of phone usage.

I went with the easier route: In 1996, I ordered a "tri-Linux" CD set from a major Linux distributor. These tri-Linux disks provided three distributions; mine included Debian 1.1 (the first stable release of Debian), Red Hat Linux 3.0.3, and Slackware 3.1 (nicknamed Slackware '96). As I recall, the discs were purchased from an online store called Linux Systems Labs. The online store doesn't exist now, but in the 90s and early 00s, such distributors were common. And so were multi-disc sets of Linux. This one's from 1998 but gives you an idea of what they involved:

A tri-linux CD set

A tri-linux CD set

On a fateful day in the summer of 1996, while living in a new and relatively rural city in Kansas, I made my first attempt at installing and working with Linux. Throughout the summer of '96, I tried all three distributions on that tri-Linux CD set. They all ran beautifully on my mom's older Pentium 75MHz computer.

I ended up choosing Slackware 3.1 as my preferred distribution, probably more because of the terminal's appearance than the other, more important reasons one should consider before deciding on a distribution.

I was up and running. I was connecting to an "off-brand" ISP (a local provider in the area), dialing in on my family's second phone line (ordered to accommodate all my internet use). I was in heaven. I had a dual-boot (Microsoft Windows 95 and Slackware 3.1) computer that worked wonderfully. I was still dialing into the BBSes that I knew and loved and playing online BBS games like Trade Wars, Usurper, and Legend of the Red Dragon.

I can remember spending days upon days of time in #Linux on EFNet (IRC), helping other users answer their Linux questions and interacting with the moderation crew.

More than 20 years after taking my first swing at using the Linux OS at home, I am now entering my fifth year as a consultant for Red Hat, still using Linux (now Fedora) as my daily driver, and still on IRC helping people looking to use Linux.

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Mike Harris is passionate about Security, Free Software, and Educating our community. Mike currently works for Red Hat as a Sr. Platform Consultant.

17 Comments

Great story! Thanks for sharing your Linux journey. My first LInux CD was around that same time. It came in a "Sam's: Teach Yourself Linux in 24 Hours." I didn't get very far with it and put my Linux journey on hold until I picked up Red Hat 6.1 in 1999. I ran that version of Red Hat on an HP Vectra that was a Pentium 75 that had been upgrade by Cyrix chips which made it a bit faster.

My first linux was about the same time, I believe I got the "Sam's: Teach Yourself Linux in 24 Hours." from the library! I think I was the first person to take the CDs out of it. Had some very nice time building and getting my first systems running. Remember being thoroughly confused by trusty RH becoming FedoraCore. The elephant for me was that I had the ridiculous misfortune to have been born female. Personally I've done my best to make peace with it but you guys still have stuff to answer for in this regard. (read: github pr rejections statistics or the criticism directed at Qs or As from female profiles on stackoverflow, both are very clearly quantifiable) constantly being put down (for no fault of your own and something one has no choice about) takes it toll. Learning Linux is an uphill battle anyway, constantly having it shoved if your face that you're not worthy/welcome makes it many times more so and for me there the culture of this was pervasive at the time. I'm still regularly the only woman in the room and I still hate it.

Summary: I'm proud of the fact that I also learned linux in the 90s, but this is dreadfully outweighed by how horrible it felt being constantly ostrecised and patronised. God forbid being taken seriously/treated like everybody "else" as a girl learning linux at that time, smh-shudder, it was horrible. One day I might forgive you guys, but it's not today.

In reply to by Don Watkins

One of the big issues in those times related to the hardware, as in various chipsets, for various functions, even the video chip. There were a limited number of drivers on the Linux CDs, so you had to fish around in a pre-Google way to find what you needed. You knew that the manufacturer of the computer was going to be of no assistance in helping you install Linux.

Oh, don't I know. So, I'm still hanging on to some old relics of hardware, for unknown reasons, however, I happen to have an old SouldBlaster PCI512 card, and remembered the joys of finding the right module(s) to compile to get it to work.

Don't even get me started in talking about "WinModems" that came out a smidge later, where the modem relied (at the time) on some specific drivers, only written for Windows, that allows the modem to use some (some more) processes related to the CPU to help the modem offload some of its duties.

In reply to by Greg Pittman

" ...You knew that the manufacturer of the computer was going to be of no assistance in helping you install Linux..."

So not much different than it is now. Except that *NOW* they're not much assistance in installing MSWin either.

In reply to by Greg Pittman

I started my Linux adventure with InfoMagic's boxset in 1998.

Loved this story! I had a similar start with Linux. And great to hear from a fellow Linuxer who got their start with dial-up. Thanks for sharing!

I live in Australia and my first experience with Linux came from a newspaper article in 1996, about RedHat. It was another two full years before I got the Linux bug properly, and from there I have used RedHat, Mandrake, Ubuntu, and various other alternatives over the years. Love where the Linux has gone over the years.

Oh the memories. Slackware in 95/96 for me from a cd ordered via magazine ad. Have been a Linux user ever since, even though I never did get X Windows to work correctly then!

Great article!

I really liked your story. Thank you for sharing your experiences in the world of Linux. Whenever I have the time, I stop to read the stories told about Linux on this site, today I found yours. Thanks for sharing.

Hi, great story! I'm from Spain, and I remember something similar but in 1993, with Slackware and kernels 0.X. I think I still have Infomagic packs like yours but bought between 1993 and 1995. I remember very dearly when I compiled support for Sound Blaster in the kernel for the first time... Despite the advantages we have today in the Linux world, I often miss those times. Learning and discovery times, Gopher times (remember that until 1995 the World Wide Web did not begin its journey), BBS times, etc, etc... I miss those times, but I am also very happy with what we have today.

So, TBH, my pack wasn't from Infomagic, as pictured. A co-worker was kind enough to let me use that picture of his tri-linux CD set. As I remember it. . . I actually had 2 tri-CD sets. I had one from Linux Systems Labs (LSL, but please, don't attempt to go to their website, as it has since been taken over, and NSFW). I also, believe I had another set, from LinuxMall (I have since, met a board member from this org).

I don't fully remember, why I had two tri-CD sets, I don't know if it was related to the Slackware 3.0 -> 3.1, or it could have been to try the Debian 1.0 -> Debian 1.1, Or maybe even Red Hat 3.9 (if it was available via those CD sets). Let's just say, that there were a whole lot of linux releases in Summer 1996, especially June of 1996.

So, the one thing, that I do remember, about my CD sets, is on the Slackware disc, it had a outlined image of J.R. Bob Dobbs, and sent me down a interesting rabbit hole, in reading about him, and his organization.

In reply to by Manuel Trujillo

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