Skip Links

Enough about Linus, what's the story with the penguin?

Torvalds wanted a 'beanbag' for a logo, and that's what Larry Ewing gave him.

By , Network World
December 15, 2003 12:10 AM ET

Network World - The Linux albatross just wouldn't sell. And the Linux platypus, well, who'd buy anything from him? Ah, but the Linux penguin, there's a bird that could really drive an industry.

"The little guy hasn't been very active in coding the actual kernel, but he sure as hell has made for a very recognizable mascot," says Linux creator Linus Torvalds. "There are people out there who have no interest in computers and wouldn't know what Linux is, but they will recognize Tux as 'that computer thing.'"

"That computer thing" is everywhere. From ashtrays and earrings to coffee mugs and baseball caps, Tux, as the penguin is known, has gained a kind of cult following. The portly bird is the main character in a video game available at Seven-foot incarnations mingle with show-goers at tech industry conferences. Plush stuffed Tuxes are available on the Web. And IBM plastered larger than life images of Tux on the sides of buildings in New York during its Peace, Love, Linux campaign in 2001.

But why a penguin? Who came up with the image of a bird that some complained looked too much like Homer Simpson? It all started in 1996, when the 5-year-old operating system began to be more widely used and talk began about the need to create a logo for Linux.

"I always felt that the Linux logo should be something fun and something you can identify with," Torvalds explained in an e-mail interview. "And being fun and friendly pretty much means that you have an animal logo."

Fun and friendly wasn't exactly what some in the Linux community were looking for, though. Torvalds says one strong camp was firmly entrenched behind the idea "that what Linux needed was not a cute cuddly logo at all, but something very staid and corporate to offset the 'goofy' nature of Linux development instead."

Nevertheless, with Torvalds squarely behind the penguin, debate over other possibilities - among them an albatross, a platypus, an eagle and a fox - quickly ended. Among his inspirations for choosing the bird is that he was bitten by one while in Australia.

A contest eventually was held to choose the logo. Larry Ewing, who was 22 at the time and finishing up an electrical engineering degree at Texas A&M University, was working at the university's Institute of Scientific Computation and saw the discussion on the Linux kernel mailing list. An avid artist, Ewing figured penning a penguin was a better use of his time than studying for finals.

Torvalds was looking for a plump, content penguin - "Not fat, but you should be able to see that it's sitting down because it's really too stuffed to stand up. Think 'bean bag' here," Torvalds wrote in a 1996 e-mail describing his ideal bird. That image is what Ewing gave him.

Ewing used the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) to create the bird. And then, in good open source fashion, he set it free. Anyone can download and then tweak the image, as long as they credit Ewing and the GIMP.

Ewing says initially it was difficult to watch his creation be manipulated by other artists.

"It's both flattering and at the same time you think, 'Ah, I wouldn't have drawn it like that,'" he says.

"But then I decided it was more interesting to see what came out of other people than it was to worry about it," he adds.

The ability to alter Tux - who according to Linux community legend wasn't named for his Tuxedo-like appearance, but rather is an acronym for "Torvalds' UniX" - has thrust the penguin into places a logo might not otherwise go, giving him a higher profile in the process.

Our Commenting Policies
Latest News
rssRss Feed
View more Latest News