OK now you have a Linux computer, and you are ready to make it do your bidding! We're going to cover how to send commands to your Linux machine using the command line - you know, a line where you send commands!

In order to start typing those commands (list files! print this one out! open the web browser!) you will use a shell - a shell is a little like the Finder on Macs, or the desktop Explorer on windows, but is not graphical - it uses only TEXT.

A shell is a program with a command-line interface which you talk to with a terminal. Terminals are software or hardware that let you send text back and forth to a computer. Shells offer a very specific kind of command line, but what we mean in general by that term is an interface where a user types commands and the computer responds.

The shell provides the command line dialect used to navigate the files on a machine, run programs, and generally stitch things together to solve problems.

You may be a little puzzled about the way "command line", "terminal" and "shell" work together - don't worry! Although technically they are different parts of a whole, they are often used interchangeably, as in "open up a terminal", "get to the command line", or "start up a shell" - these are all basically the same thing.

My shell looks like this:

In this guide, we'll talk a little about where the command line comes from and why it's still so important, explain how to get a shell on the Raspberry Pi (and other systems), and begin to outline how it can be useful in your own work.

Ancient History

Command lines aren't the oldest way to tell a computer what to do.  Depending on how you think of it, that distinction probably belongs to plugging wires into switchboards, toggling banks of switches, or moving beads on a wire.

The command line is, however, one of the most durable ways for humans to talk to a computer. It's been used continuously for half a century, and seems to be reinvented at least a few times by every generation of computer users.

For example, until Windows became popular, DOS was the way you would talk to your home or business PC

DOS looks like this:

To modern eyes, the command line can appear primitive, or outmoded by newer interfaces.  That's not quite right.  The CLI isn't old so much as it's eternal. It keeps cropping up everywhere you look.

Point-and-click graphical interfaces have been in wide use for a long time now. The Macintosh hit the market in 1984, and Windows machines were common by the early 90s. What's more, both systems leaned heavily on ideas that were first developed in the 60s.

Now that we have all of those pointers, icons, and windows full of polished visual elements, why do command lines keep reappearing, even in the middle of our shiniest and most up-to-date programs?

One way to answer that is to think about programming languages. Just about every piece of software you've ever used is written in a little language with its own grammar and vocabulary. It turns out that language is really expressive, and that once you've written a useful sentence in some language, you can usually save it for later use, or remix it to have a different effect.

Language - expressed as text - also has the benefit of being easy to keep in files, easy to send over the wire, and easy to combine with other bits of language. Command lines are one of the most powerful tools at our disposal for expressing and sharing useful ideas, both with the computer and with other humans.

GNU/Linux systems like Raspbian are conceptual descendants of an operating system called Unix, which dates to the 1960s.  These days, Unix is a broad family of OSes, serving all sorts of purposes.

Out of all the modern, widely-used operating system families you'll encounter, Unix is probably the one where command-line interfaces are still the most fundamental and widely used.

If you're interested in the history of how all this came to be, there's a lot of good writing out there.

And if you've got half an hour to kill and want a real vintage computing fix, this Unix documentary from 1982 is amazing.

We'll come back to the history, but right now let's focus on the what and how of getting your own shell. You're going to need a terminal.

What's a Terminal?

Once upon a time, terminals were dedicated pieces of hardware, and looked something like this:

Note the maker, digital and the name of the product, VT100: Video Terminal 100

Nowadays, they're almost always a software program, and look something like this:

Note the new coloring, not possible with original mono-color terminals. And there's almost always a scroll bar so you can look at your command history

Why terminals?

What possessed the designers of the original VT100 terminal to design such a beast? Well, imagine that you're a university, big company, or research lab back in the middle of last century, and you have a few of these:

We're talking really huge and really expensive.  So what happens when lots of users want to share the scarce resource that is time on a computer?

Well, you could hook up a bunch of cheap devices that display output and take input from users...

As it happened, by the time computers came along and needed input/output devices, there was already a technology in widespread use for sending text back and forth over the wire.

Early on, teletype devices printed output on actual paper and transmitted input from a typewriter-like keyboard.  After a while, these were replaced by terminals which incorporated monitors, which in turn were replaced by desktop computers running software to emulate the behavior of the older hardware terminals.  (Well, mostly replaced - you can still see terminal hardware in service at places like airline check-in desks and some stores.)

Things have changed a lot, but modern terminals still work in ways that reflect this heritage.  A terminal, at its most basic, pipes text back and forth between a computer and a user.

Getting a Terminal on Your Raspberry Pi

We'll be exploring the Linux command line using the Raspberry Pi as a baseline system. Let's go over the basic options for getting to a shell/command line in a terminal.

Use the HDMI Console

The easiest thing you can do is to just plug a display and keyboard into your Pi, running Raspbian, and work right on the console.

This just means that the "terminal" you're using to talk to the shell on your Pi is provided directly by the Linux kernel. You'll need a USB keyboard (mouse optional) and an HDMI display (or an adapter for other kinds of display).

Using a Console Cable

Another option which requires a little more tinkering (but can save you the need for an extra keyboard and monitor) is to hook up a console cable to the Pi from another computer. Check out our guide on using a console cable, which comes complete with instructions for installing a terminal emulator on Mac and Windows machines.

The console cable connects to a couple pins on the Pi, and converts the text into a standard "serial" USB port, which is supported by tons of free software for Mac, Linux, and Windows like PuTTY, minicom, or screen.

This is called running the Raspberry Pi headless - because you are not using the 'monitor (head)' as a console.

Run a Terminal Emulator from Your Desktop

If your Pi is configured to start a graphical desktop when it boots, or if you just prefer to use one, you'll probably be looking at something like this:

Look for a program called "LXTerminal" and fire it up.  There should be an icon on the desktop:

...or you can find it under "Accessories" in the main menu:

Connect to Your Pi Over the Network with SSH

Most of the time, when professional nerds need to access the command line on a remote Linux system, they rely on a standard protocol called SSH, which stands for Secure SHell. 

SSH clients (the Pi is the SSH 'host') are available for all the major operating systems. It's easy to make the Raspberry Pi speak SSH once its connected to Ethernet or WiFi, and like using a console cable, it can save you cluttering your workspace with extra monitors and keyboards. However, you need to have the Pi running and connected to WiFi first, which is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem if you don't already have a way to console in.

Check out our guide to enabling SSH on the Pi, or try our new Raspberry Pi Finder, a friendly desktop application for finding and connecting to a Pi on your local network.

At the Prompt

If everything goes well, you should find yourself looking at a little bit of text followed by a cursor.

For the Pi, by default you'll be using a shell program called Bash (Bourne Again SHell). There are lots of other shells, but right now Bash is popular enough to be a de facto standard. It's probably what you'll first encounter on Linux systems and the Macintosh. You can even install it on Windows!

This is a prompt. It's Bash's way of saying "ok, talk to me".

Prompts on different systems will vary (and in fact you can customize your own) but this one is pretty standard. It's set up to tell you a few things about where you're at and what you can do.

Let's break this down.

pi is the user you're logged in as.

raspberrypi is the hostname of your Raspberry Pi. This is in the prompt because lots of people have a bunch of terminals open at once, and you don't want to forget what computer you're typing at if you can help it.

~ is the current working directory. The tilde character is actually a special shorthand in the shell for your home directory (more about that in a minute).

$ is an indicator that it's your turn to type now. (Sometimes you'll see other characters here, like %, >, or #.)

Try a simple command, typing into either:

  • The Pi's USB keyboard if you are using the HDMI console
  • Your computer keyboard if using a console cable or SSH

This is the command to try:

echo hello world

Ready to go exploring? Check out An Illustrated Shell Command Primer!