If you’re a fan of Linux, you might have seen “Tux,” the friendly penguin mascot for the operating system. But why a penguin, and why Tux? We’ll explore the history behind the semi-aquatic bird mascot with a little help from Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux himself.
Linus Torvalds Loves Penguins
Unlike commercial operating systems backed by many million-dollar marketing campaigns, early versions of Linux didn’t have any formal branding. Linux started as a hobbyist project by Finnish university student Linus Torvalds in 1991, and a group of volunteers around the world developed and maintained it in its early years. So when developing Linux’s public image, its developers went about it in a very informal way: by discussing it on the Linux-Kernel group email list.
Of course, one person’s voice—Torvalds—carried much more weight than the others, and that voice loved a certain type of animal. In the early 1990s, Torvalds often playfully referenced penguins on the mailing list. What was his attraction to the birds as a potential logo?
“Penguins are simply just exotic enough to be interesting, but well-known enough to not be obscure,” Torvalds told How-To Geek in an email.
In particular, Torvalds’s love of penguins slipped into legend after a 1995 interview with Linux Journal, where Torvalds mentioned being bitten by a penguin while visiting a zoo in Australia.
“The most interesting parts of Australia weren’t computers at all, but the small and furry (and sometimes feathered) animals there. I got bitten by a penguin in Canberra (Killer Penguins Strike Again), but it was a very small and timid one.”
The penguin bite only seemed to accelerate Torvalds’ playful interest in the birds. On April 29, 1996, Torvalds announced the 1.3.97 release of the Linux kernel and jokingly called it the “Killer Penguin” release.
But still, Torvalds says the penguin bite episode was not the primary source of Tux: “I liked penguins before too,” Torvalds told How-To Geek. “It’s true that I was bitten by (a very timid) penguin at Australia National Zoo, but I think one of the sources of inspiration—and probably a more important one—was Aardman Studios.”
How Tux Took Shape
By early 1996, the idea of an official logo for Linux had been floating around for years. People had made many mock-ups and fancy, ray-traced “Linux” letters with the graphics technology available at the time—and someone even tried to bring a platypus into the mix.
On May 1, 1996, someone on the Linux-Kernel mailing list shared yet another image of a potential Linux logo, and in response, Linux contributor Alan Cox asked for an image of a penguin—a reference to Torvalds’ obsession—in boxing gloves punching out the BSD Daemon.
Shortly after that, Torvalds provided the email list with an image of a claymation penguin created by Aardman Animations, the studio behind Wallace and Gromit. “[Aardman] had a couple of claymation penguins (e.g. ‘The Wrong Trousers,’)” Torvalds tells How-To Geek. “Although that penguin was less of a ‘happy penguin in repose after eating a lot of herring,’ and more of a Bond-movie supervillain penguin.”
Programmer Larry Ewing (who worked on The GIMP graphics editor project) took up the original challenge from Cox and drew a penguin in boxing gloves. Others submitted penguin artwork as well. Torvalds offered constructive feedback on the attempts at penguin drawings made by others so far, recommending a new approach with a gentler, contented penguin “stuffed to its brim with herring.”
Ewing went back to the drawing board. After a multi-step process refined over time in the GIMP image editor—from a black and white sketch to a colorful illustration with shading—Ewing developed what we now think of as the archetypal “Tux” penguin. It met Torvalds’ criteria of a 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 stood for “(T)orvolds (U)ni(X).” Tux, often short for “tuxedo,” is also a reference to the fact that some species penguins look like they’re wearing tuxedos because of their feather coloration.
Not everyone loved the penguin. Some on the mailing list were unhappy with the animal choice (“Please, anything but penguins,”) and someone else mentioned that the “Penguin” name was taken by an unrelated utility. But Torvalds’ voice and playful influence won out, and over time, Ewing’s refined drawing became the official image of Tux, the mascot of Linux.
The Penguin Legend Continues
Since the 1990s, the lore of Tux (and Torvalds’ penguin zoo encounter) have only grown. By 2007, the zoo in Canberra where Torvalds was first nibbled by a penguin had erected a sign commemorating the episode, mentioning “It is our belief that the original Tux is still housed in this enclosure.”
Interestingly, Torvalds says that, canonically, Tux isn’t a real penguin at all. “The Linux penguin is not exactly anatomically correct,” he told us. “It’s very much a plush toy kind of thing (and in fact, people ended up making plush toys based on it, and not just for Linux conferences).” This might be why people send him plush penguins all the time, as illustrated in this YouTube video.
In a mid-2000s email that gets frequently quoted online, Torvalds said, “Don’t take the penguin too seriously. It’s supposed to be kind of goofy and fun, that’s the whole point.” He went on to say that Linux is supposed to be goofy and fun as well. He wanted to make sure that Linux didn’t take itself too seriously.
“I wanted a happy cuddly logo, not a corporate one,” Torvalds says today. “And I think the penguin worked really well.”
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