You’ve never heard of him.
He’s a terrible public speaker, charmless, stubborn, worthless with the media, a luddite curmudgeon, hopelessly idealistic, and his politics are impossible.
His name is Richard Stallman, and he changed the world.
In the early 1980s, Stallman was a student at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
At the time, most software was free and open-source.
Bill Gates and Microsoft were leading the charge to close software source code.
Stallman felt closed, proprietary software was dangerous for computing and personal freedom.
He believed that the source code for software should be available to you. That way, you would have the freedom to change it as needed.
So Stallman decided to do something about it.
Stallman’s plan was to create an entirely free, open-source computing environment, from the core of the operating system to the apps you use to work. It was a massive undertaking.
He called this the GNU project.
GNU created a code compiler, debugger, a text editor, and other components which are the building blocks of modern computing.
He also created the tools that the developers use to create the apps you use.
Do this if you’re reading this on a Mac:
Press ⌘ and SPACEBAR to open spotlight. Type in “Terminal” and hit enter.
You’ll see a blank screen where you can enter text. Type in “emacs” and press enter.
Terminal and Emacs were both created by Stallman.
For context, Emacs was used by Marc Andreessen to create Netscape Navigator, which is the grandfather of the modern web browser you’re using right now.
Julian Assange of WikiLeaks uses it. Mark Zuckerberg used it to create Facebook.
I’m typing this in Emacs right now. In an hour, I’ll be coding my next app in it.
In the early ’90s, a Finnish engineer named Linus Torvalds wrote an operating system kernel for Stallman’s GNU software base.
A kernel is a switchboard for your applications to communicate with the hardware.
Torvalds called his kernel Linux.
It now powers a huge chunk of the web servers that make the internet possible. If you’re reading this on Android, Linux is your operating system.
Stallman’s productivity has created trillions in wealth for the world economy.
Hundreds of tech entrepreneurs became billionaires thanks to him.
Yet, he lives in poverty.
For 20 years, Stallman slept on a couch at his MIT office.
He receives no pay for his work on GNU or at MIT.
He is frequently a target of scorn and ridicule from the people who owe him the most.
Such is the fate of many geniuses.
Van Gogh was a social pariah, shunned from Dutch and French society and then locked away.
Isaac Newton died a virgin. Socrates was killed by the government of Athens for his philosophy.
When Nikola Tesla died, he was broke and destitute.
So it will be with Stallman.
But for the rest of your life, every time you press a button, you’ll run his code.