A Universal Serial Bus (USB) is used to connect a host, such as a PC or workstation, to a number of peripheral devices. USB uses a tree structure, with the host as the root (the system's master), hubs as interior nodes, and peripherals as leaves (and slaves). Modern PCs support several such trees of USB devices, usually one USB 2.0 tree (480 Mbit/sec each) with a few USB 1.1 trees (12 Mbit/sec each) that are used when you connect a USB 1.1 device directly to the machine's "root hub".
That master/slave asymmetry was designed-in for a number of reasons, one being ease of use. It is not physically possible to assemble (legal) USB cables incorrectly: all upstream "to the host" connectors are the rectangular type (matching the sockets on root hubs), and all downstream connectors are the squarish type (or they are built into the peripheral). Also, the host software doesn't need to deal with distributed auto-configuration since the pre-designated master node manages all that. And finally, at the electrical level, bus protocol overhead is reduced by eliminating arbitration and moving scheduling into the host software.
USB 1.0 was announced in January 1996 and was revised as USB 1.1 (with improvements in hub specification and support for interrupt-out transfers) in September 1998. USB 2.0 was released in April 2000, adding high-speed transfers and transaction-translating hubs (used for USB 1.1 and 1.0 backward compatibility).
Kernel developers added USB support to Linux early in the 2.2 kernel
series, shortly before 2.3 development forked. Updates from 2.3 were
regularly folded back into 2.2 releases, which improved reliability and
/sbin/hotplug support as well more drivers.
Such improvements were continued in the 2.5 kernel series, where they added
USB 2.0 support, improved performance, and made the host controller drivers
(HCDs) more consistent. They also simplified the API (to make bugs less
likely) and added internal "kerneldoc" documentation.
Linux can run inside USB devices as well as on the hosts that control the devices. But USB device drivers running inside those peripherals don't do the same things as the ones running inside hosts, so they've been given a different name: gadget drivers. This document does not cover gadget drivers.