Which Common Computer Process Owes Its Name To A Boisterous Baron?
Every morning millions of people sit down at their computers, lean over, press a button, and start the boot process that brings the machine to life. Why do we call it booting instead of starting, powering up, or some other suitable term? To get to the root of why the boot process is called just that, we start our journey all the way the 18th century with a visit to a German nobleman.
Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, known most commonly as Baron Münchhausen, led a rather unremarkable life for a nobleman of his time. He was a page in his youth, a military officer in his adult life, and was well regarded by his peers as a honest businessman and upstanding fellow. One of the most notable things about Baron Münchhausen was his propensity for tall tales. Despite his integrity in the matter of business and military affairs, he was widely known for entertaining and highly exaggerated tales of his exploits and adventures.
His tales were so fantastic they begged to be retold and in 1785 an English version of his stories were packaged, by Rudold Erich Raspe, as The Surprising Adventures of Baron Münchhausen. Of all the tall tales in the collection, the one of particular interest to us is a tale wherein Baron Münchhausen, on an excursion, finds himself mired in a swamp. Rather than sink or wait for rescue, he reaches down into the depths of the swamp and pulls himself up by his bootstraps, effectively laughing in the face of physics and launching himself out of the swamp.
As a result of the popularity of the tales, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, “to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps” was to say a task was impossible. In the early 20th century the meaning began to shift and by the 1920s pulling one’s self up by one’s bootstraps meant to help oneself unaided by others.
It was with this etymological history the term bootstrapping appeared in the landscape of 1950s computing. Many early computers had a bootstrap button, that when pressed would launch a hardwired program that would in turn launch the bootstrap program from an input device–once the button was pressed the machine essentially, as if pulling itself up by it’s bootstraps, helped itself. These early bootstrapping programs were the precursor of the modern BIOS system. Decades after the first computer and nearly just as long since the button was labeled “bootstrap”, we still call the process booting.