Every morning, millions of people sit at their computers, lean over, press a button, and start the boot process that brings the machine to life. Why is it called start-up rather than start-up, power-up, or some other suitable term? To understand why the start-up process is so called, we begin our journey throughout the 18th century with a visit to a German nobleman.
Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, better known as Baron Münchhausen, led a rather mundane 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 an honest businessman and an honest man. One of the most notable things about Baron Münchhausen was his propensity for tall stories. Despite his integrity in business and military affairs, he was widely known for his entertaining and highly exaggerated accounts of his exploits and adventures.
His tales were so fantastic that they begged to be told and in 1785 an English version of his stories was packed, by Rudold Erich Raspe, as Baron Münchhausen’s Surprising Adventures. Of all the great tales in the collection, the one that particularly interests us is the one where Baron Münchhausen, during an excursion, finds himself mired in a swamp. Rather than sink or wait for the rescue, he descends into the depths of the swamp and lifts himself up with his bootstraps, laughing effectively at the physics and launching himself out of the swamp.
Due to the popularity of tales, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, “getting up by your buttocks” meant that a task was impossible. At the start of the 20th century, meaning started to change and, in the 1920s, pulling yourself together with your bootstrap was supposed to help yourself without the help of others.
It is with this etymological history that the term bootstrap appeared in the computer landscape of the 1950s. Many early computers had a boot button which, when pressed, would launch a wired program which, in turn, would launch the program boot from an input device – once the button was pressed, the machine essentially, as if it were lifting up through its bootstraps, helped itself. These early boot programs were the precursor to the modern BIOS system. Decades after the first computer and almost as long as the button was labeled “bootstrap”, we still call it the boot process.