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I am VERY new to Linux and am wondering if you can just boot the Linux kernel by itself or does it absolutely HAVE to be apart of an operating system. My reasoning behind wanting to do this is so that I can learn Linux from the beginning, when it first started. I have a copy of the source code for the kernel version 0.01. I want a VERY minimal version of Linux just so I can learn a little at a time. I have messed around with a few distros, but I have not messed with command line.

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    Just the kernel will do absolutely nothing for you. If you want to learn Linux from the beginning, have a look at Linux From Scratch
    – Lawrence
    Commented Dec 23, 2013 at 4:34
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    You have to at least have some program as its init, or otherwise the kernel will panic.
    – user37607
    Commented Dec 23, 2013 at 6:36

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If you actually want to run linux-0.01 (the one circa 1991), VMware may not be the best option (but see below). The VMware, being a high performance "same platform" VM, exposes much less details on the underlying execution context and less opportunities to tweaking it, compared to a full fledged platform simulator, such as QEMU or Bosch.

However, to answer your question directly, here's a ready made VMware image you can boot to make you going.

Also check out Linux 0.00 & 0.11 on Qemu! (there's a link to QEMU image referred).

QEMU, being a true platform simulator, will allow you to easily investigate the working of the internal hardware machinery necessary to make OS run, such as memory paging, protection and interrupts.

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If you are really interested in old Linux versions, and you are using Windows be sure to check out Ancient Linux on Windows. I've taken the older tool chain of GAS/Binutils/GCC and made them to run under Windows so you can cross compile Linux 0.10/0.11/0.12/0.95/0.96/0.97/0.98 directly on your Windows machine, and included Qemu & a simple filesystem to boot up your kernel. You can use any Windows based editor to edit files, and recompile from your desktop. Changes were minimal to the tools, and the Linux build process, and the only changes to Linux I had to do was renaming some files, as .s & .S extensions appear the same on Windows.

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