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http://www.debian.org/doc/manuals/project-history - Official history
The Debian Project was officially founded by Ian Murdock on August 16th, 1993. At that time, the whole concept of a "distribution" of Linux was new. Ian intended Debian to be a distribution which would be made openly, in the spirit of Linux and GNU (read his Debian Manifesto for more details). The creation of Debian was sponsored by the FSF's GNU project for one year (November 1994 to November 1995).
Debian was meant to be carefully and conscientiously put together, and to be maintained and supported with similar care. It started as a small, tightly-knit group of Free Software hackers, and gradually grew to become a large, well-organized community of developers and users.
When it began, Debian was the only distribution that was open for every developer and user to contribute their work. It remains the most significant distributor of Linux that is not a commercial entity. It is the only large project with a constitution, social contract, and policy documents to organize the project. Debian is also the only distribution which is "micro packaged" using detailed dependency information regarding inter-package relationships to ensure system consistency across upgrades.
To achieve and maintain high standards of quality, Debian has adopted an extensive set of policies and procedures for packaging and delivering software. These standards are backed up by tools, automation, and documentation implementing all of Debian's key elements in an open and visible way...
Debian history round table that happened during debconf4.