Here is a brief history of Linux and how the open source revolution got started.
1971 The first edition of the Unix server operating system emerges from Bell Labs. Although Linux does not include any Unix code, it is a Unix clone, which means it shares a number of technical features with Unix, which might be considered the forerunner of the open-source operating system. During the 1970s, Unix code was distributed to people at various universities and companies, and they created their own Unix varieties, which ultimately evolved into Sun (SUNW) Microsystems’ Solaris, Berkeley (dossier)’s FreeBSD and Silicon Graphics (SGI)’ IRIX.
1985 Richard Stallman publishes his famous "GNU Manifesto" (www.gnu.org/gnu/manifesto.html), one of the first documents of the open-source revolution. Stallman began working on the GNU operating system in 1983, largely because he wanted to create an open-source version of Unix. (GNU stands for "GNU is Not Unix.") Stallman’s Free Software Foundation later created the GNU General Public License (www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html), the widely adopted, fully legal "anticopyright" treatise that today allows Linux and other software to remain completely free.
1987 Professor Andrew S. Tanenbaum invents Minix, an open-source operating system that’s a clone of Unix. Young Linus Torvalds, at the time a computer science student in Finland, is introduced to Minix, and bases his plans for Linux on the Minix example.
1991 In August, Torvalds announces his plans to create a free operating system on the Minix users newsgroup. He modestly notes in his posting that his OS is "just a hobby. [It] won’t be big and professional like GNU." In October, Linux 0.01 is released on the Internet under a GNU public license. In the Minix newsgroup, Torvalds asks his fellow programmers to lend a hand in making the system more workable. He gets enough help to release version 0.1 by December. Over the next several years, Linux developers swell into the hundreds of thousands and work to make Linux compatible with GNU programs. Vendors like Red Hat, Caldera (CALD) and Debian create popular distributions of Linux that bundle the operating system with useful programs and a graphical interface.
1997 Torvalds moves to Silicon Valley and goes to work at Transmeta.
1999 In August, Red Hat completes its initial public offering, making it the first Linux-oriented company to successfully go public. In December, Andover.net, a consortium of Web site resources largely devoted to Linux, and VA Linux, a manufacturer of Linux hardware, have wildly successful IPOs. Linuxcare, a leading Linux service provider, announces alliances with such industry giants as IBM (IBM), Dell (DELL), Motorola (MOT) and Informix (IFMX).
Here is a quote from Linus which really sums this up.
`When you say "I wrote a program that crashed Windows", people just stare at you blankly and say "Hey, I got those with the system, *for free*".’
There is something to be said for someone who developed an operating system for the betterment for everyone and "by everyone" as well.