They weren’t. These modern marvels which are no force of nature have only been around for about 50 years, and every one of them is created by a human coder. Some do it for thrills, some do it for cash and some do it out of sheer boredom; all of them annoy the vast majority of computer users greatly.
Like most inventions, viruses have a history. Let’s take a look at the history of computer viruses and where the modern computer virus came from.
1944: In Theory
John von Neumann – the brilliant mathematician who helped bring us nuclear energy, game theory and quantum theory’s operating mechanics – theorized about the existence of computer viruses as early 1944. In a series of lectures called “Theory of self-reproducing automata” von Neumann contemplated the difference between computers and the human mind, and also about the possibility of self-relicating computer code.
Considering the modern computer virus is, essentially, self-replicating computer code adds to von Neumann’s impressive academic achievements, as such code is commonplace today.
Early 1960’s: The Creeper
One of the first viruses in history came over 20 years after von Neumann’s talks, and was called “Creeper.” This program managed to crawl its way around computer networks in the early 60’s via the ARPANET, an early precursor to the Internet.
So what damage did Creeper do to computers it infected? None, unless you count displaying the text “I’m the Creeper, catch me if you can!” damage. You could say it was more playful than anything, but it was a powerful proof of concept.
By 1974 there were already harmful viruses in the wild: Wabit was a virus that would replicate itself again and again until all system resources of a machine were utilized, crashing the machine entirely.
1982: Elk Clone
But such viruses couldn’t affect too many machines in a world where computers where uncommon and ran a wide variety of operating systems. Apple computers changed both those things in the late 70s, and by the early 80s the Apple computer was in thousands of households.
This, of course, opened the way for viruses to really spread. A program called Elk Cloner, written by a 15-year-old, spread itself via floppy disks. Like Creeper it really didn’t do a lot of damage; it would occasionally display a poem taunting the end-user and simply spread itself.
Rich Skrenta, the virus’s creater, called it “some dumb little practical joke.” That may have been so to him, but viruses would soon grow far beyond that.
The 1980s would see viruses appear for all the major platforms including IBM, Amiga, and even BSD UNIX. The diversity of computer operating systems on the market prevented viruses from spreading too quickly, however. That would change in the 90s.
1990’s: Windows Monoculture
Jump forward to 1995 and the vast majority of computers on the planet are running Microsoft Windows. This makes computers accessible to a larger number of people than ever before, but also creates a mono-culture in which viruses spread very quickly.
Another thing happened around this time that also helped viruses become commonplace: the birth of the modern Internet. The web changed the way we communicate, but also changed the way viruses spread. No longer contained on floppy discs, viruses could spread themselves very quickly in the Internet age.
By 1995 macro viruses began spreading via Microsoft Word. The sheer number of computer users with Microsoft Outlook installed meant viruses could spread quickly via email. Even instant messaging was compromised. Peer to peer networks like Napster, Limewire and Bittorrent all became common ways for viruses to spread as well.
Essentially any way information can travel can be utilized by viruses. In 2006 some iPods were even sold with viruses on them.
A seemingly eternal fight between virus creators and companies providing protection from viruses is still taking place. Viruses are significantly less common today as security improves, but still not completely eliminated.
The vast majority of viruses today infect the Windows operating system. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that Windows is by far the most common platform, meaning it is by far the platform most vulnerable to infection. Beyond this, however, alternative systems such as Linux and Mac OS X are less vulnerable to viruses because they lack a single registry and have stricter policies regarding what the user can and can’t edit without administrative rights.
The Worst Of Today
As with any sector of technology, viruses are always evolving. One of the fastest moving viruses today is Virus.Win32.Virut.ce, according to a recent article at SecureList. This virus is particularly good at inserting itself into software on your computer in such a way that it is difficult to remove.
There are always new viruses appearing “in the wild.” If you want to read about them as they come out, I highly recommend you check out Securelist.
If you want to read more about the history of computer viruses, I recommend Wikipedia’s fascinating timeline about computer viruses history or Snopes’ list of virus hoaxes and realities.
In the early days viruses were written for fun. Today viruses don’t seem that fun, particularly to someone with corrupted data. You can protect yourself, however. Check out out list of the top ten free antivirus programs for Windows.
Do you have any cool stories from the early history of computer viruses? Please share in the comments below! Please also share if you have anything to add to the admittedly brief history of viruses outlined above. Knowledge may not spread as quickly as a computer virus but it is far more useful. Share it below.