Finnix was born in 1999. At the time, very few LiveCD distributions existed; the phrase LiveCD wasn't even coined yet. Linuxcare had released its "Bootable Toolbox", a set of utilities in a 50MB businesscard CD. However, not many people had access to this, as it was primarily given out in trade shows, and not available for download until later in its life. While working at an ISP and having access to several test machines and CD burners (back before CD burners were plentiful), I took a Red Hat 6.0 installation and modified it to be able to be run directly from a CD. Version 0.01 was only distributed to 2 other people. 0.02 had some minor modifications, and was used mostly by the office staff. Finnix 0.03 was updated to reflect Red Hat 6.1, and in February 2000, it was released to the world.
By today's standards, Finnix 0.03 was rather primitive. While the distribution could use swap and set up network devices automatically, it could not "find itself". You had to tell Linux the location of your CDROM drive (IE, "finnix root=/hdc"). The ISO was 320MB, which while half of a CD, it was still rather large for its purpose. The boot progress wasn't "pretty". Booting required 32MB of RAM, which was not uncommon, but still a decent amount. Nonetheless, Finnix 0.03 became a success nearly overnight. Over 10,000 confirmed copies were downloaded (5,000 from the main site, and 5,000 from SourceForge). CheapBytes, the source for people who could not burn Linux CDs themselves, carried Finnix, first as a "we'll burn it to CD for you" product, then as a full pressed CD.
Sadly, an update was never released. Finnix version 1.0 was announced, and was supposed to be based on Linux From Scratch, but that didn't get far. Over the next few years, I gave up on Finnix, and instead myself used Knoppix and/or LNX-BBC for system administration work.
In mid-2005, frustrated that Knoppix did not have LVM2 or dm-crypt packages as part of the default CD, I followed a "Knoppix Remaster HOWTO" document and made my own version of Knoppix 3.8.1, with LVM2 and dm-crypt included. This was given the name "Finnix version 84". (84 was picked for no good reason; besides, how many projects do you know (besides Emacs) with versions above 10?) A couple months later, I dusted off the remastering hat, and made version 85.0, based on Knoppix 4.0.2-CD. Several "point releases" were made (but not actually released to anyone other than my friends), with the last version, 85.3, down to about 180MB and included some Finnix branding. But at that point, I hit a wall. There's only so much you can remove while chopping away at a distribution that's intended for graphical use.
Finnix 86.0 was started by taking a fresh Debian testing installation and adding hundreds of sysadmin-related utilities to it. Then, using Knoppix as a reference (and even taking some code from Knoppix), hardware autodetection, ramdisk, and CD booting support were added. The result is the best of all worlds: a fast, small, bootable CD with excellent hardware detection and many sysadmin-releated utilities. Once booted into Finnix, you will be hard-pressed to find many differences between Finnix and a normal Debian testing computer, loaded with utilities.
The original version of the Finnix homepage, for version 0.03, has been preserved for your nostalgic pleasure.