Skip to main content

The History of the Computer Virus


The first real virus was the subject of a computer science experiment in November 1983, presented by American computer scientist Fred Cohen to a seminar on computer security. When Cohen introduced the concept to the seminar, the name <i>virus</i> was suggested by Len Adleman, and the results of the experiment were demonstrated a week later.

Not long after that personal computer users were complaining of data disappearing from their diskettes for no apparent reason. Programmers began to find strange messages buried in the code in which computer programs are written. Even worse, the electronic scourge was contagious, spreading from one minicomputer to another. This form of sabotage became known as the "computer virus".

Prior to this the concept of the computer virus was only found in the realm of science fiction. In John Brunner's novel The Shockwave Rider in 1975 he talked about a parasitic type of worm, similar to a tapeworm, generating new segments for itself in all machines sabotaging the network.

Here are a few historic "highlights"...

In late 1987, computer users at George Washington University in Washing D.C., began mysteriously losing data from their disks. Programmers in the university's computer lab examined a damaged disk and found a cryptic message written on it. The message read, "Welcome to the dungeon... Beware of this computer VIRUS. Contact us for vaccination..." It included two names, an address, and three telephone numbers in Lahore, Pakistan.

In January 1988, computer scientists at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, discovered and dismantled a virus containing a command to delete all the files on the university's massive computer network, including information on government and military installations.

In March 1988, there appeared the first virus in commercial software. This virus merely startled users by producing a message on the screen calling for universal peace. Nevertheless, the presence of the virus showed that even shrink-wrapped software purchased legally is not safe from "infection".

What really brought the worm into the news, though, was the worm which temporarily disabled more than three thousand computers at universities, businesses and research establishments on the Internet network in the US in November 1988. Robert T. Morris, a research student at Cornell University, was later convicted of releasing the worm into the system.

By the second half of the eighties the virus had become a serious and prolific hazard to individual and corporate computer users; because the code copies itself into the computer's memory and then causes havoc, it became advisable to avoid using floppy discs which might conceivably contain a virus - freeware and discs supplied by clubs. Considerable financial loss was suffered as a result of the epidemic, not to mention research time and valuable data; in one famous incident, London's Royal National Institute for the Blind temporarily lost six months' worth of research after being attacked by a virus contained in files on a floppy disc.

In response to this new dilemma an industry was born, when a number of software companies began to offer virus detection programs to remove or guard against infection. By the end of 1990, there were nineteen products competing in the antivirus market. With the creation of new viruses on almost a daily basis and the proliferation of the Internet there are hundreds, both available at brick and mortar retailers and online downloads. In addition to the those for sale there are also Open Source and freeware virus detection programs.

Nowadays the term "virus" has been relegated to a subcategory of the online threats now collectively known as Malware which also includes worms, trojans and spyware. Malware is a truncation of Malicious Software.

Related Articles