Wheel (computing)

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In Unix operating systems, the term wheel refers to a user account with a wheel bit, a system setting that provides additional special system privileges that empower a user to execute restricted commands that ordinary user accounts cannot access.[1][2]


The term wheel was first applied to computer user privilege levels after the introduction of the TENEX operating system, later distributed under the name TOPS-20 in the 1960s and early 1970s.[2][3] The term was derived from the slang phrase big wheel, referring to a person with great power or influence.[1]

In the 1980s, the term was imported into Unix culture due to the migration of operating system developers and users from TENEX/TOPS-20 to Unix.[2]

Wheel group[edit]

Modern Unix systems generally use user groups as a security protocol to control access privileges. The wheel group is a special user group used on some Unix systems, mostly BSD systems,[citation needed] to control access to the su[4][5] or sudo command, which allows a user to masquerade as another user (usually the super user).[1][2][6] Debian-like operating systems create a group called sudo with purpose similar to that of a wheel group.[citation needed]

Wheel war[edit]

The phrase wheel war, which originated at Stanford University,[7] is a term used in computer culture, first documented in the 1983 version of The Jargon File. A 'wheel war' was a user conflict in a multi-user (see also: multiseat) computer system, in which students with administrative privileges would attempt to lock each other out of a university's computer system, sometimes causing unintentional harm to other users.[8]


  1. ^ a b c "Wheel". Jargon File 4.4.7. Eric S. Raymond. Retrieved 2017-04-22.
  2. ^ a b c d "Wheel bit". Jargon File 4.4.7. Eric S. Raymond. Retrieved 2017-04-22.
  3. ^ "TWENEX". Jargon File 4.4.7. Eric S. Raymond. Retrieved 2008-09-12.
  4. ^ "su(1) - OpenBSD manual pages". man.openbsd.org. Retrieved 2018-05-05.
  5. ^ "su". www.freebsd.org. Retrieved 2018-05-05.
  6. ^ Levi, Bozidar (2002). UNIX Administration: A Comprehensive Sourcebook for Effective Systems and Network Management. CRC Press. p. 207. ISBN 0-8493-1351-1.
  7. ^ Raymond; et al. "Jargon File". Jargon File 2.1.1. Eric S. Raymond. Retrieved 2016-08-15.
  8. ^ Steele; et al. "Jargon File". Jargon File 1.5.0. Retrieved 2016-08-15.