The computer virus turns 31

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With the invention of the personal computer also came the invention of the computer virus—and it turned 31 years old on January 30. Although the computer virus technically existed beforehand, this certain virus was the first to go out into the wild and affect consumer PCs. Was it invented by an experienced programmer at a top technology firm? Was it invented by anyone in the United States or the Soviet Union governments? The answers to both questions are no—it was invented by Mt. Lebanon High School ninth grader Richard Skrenta in 1982 in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Like many people who were catching on to the personal computer in the 1980s, Skrenta and his friends used to trade pirated software with each other, very similar to those who exchange torrents on the Internet today. The commercial Internet was still around a decade away, and ARPANET, a primitive version of the Internet used by the government, wouldn’t switch over to TCP/IP (the way we connect to the Internet today) until the following year. The exchange of the computer virus was done via floppy disks in its early years.

Skrenta’s version of the computer virus was rather harmless compared to the devastation that they can do today. Today, a successful computer virus can bring entire databases to their knees and cause millions (if not billions) of dollars in damage as a result. Skrenta just added lines of code to the programs to the floppy disks he handed out to his friends as a practical joke. Skrenta’s friends were greeted with pop-up messages taunting them as they would boot up the games, much like the pop-up advertisements we used to deal with. His friends were annoyed with his jokes, and would stop taking disks from him.

“I realized I could essentially get my program to move around by itself. I could give it its own motive force, by having it hide in the resident RAM of the machine between floppy changes, and hitching a ride onto the next floppy that would be inserted. Whoa. That would be cool,” Skrenta said. Thus, the first computer virus was born. It was 400 lines of code made on an Apple II computer, which might surprise some people, namely because it is a common belief that Macs do not get viruses. He dubbed it Elk Cloner, and after the 50th boot, one would be greeted with the message: “Elk Cloner: The program with a personality. It will get on all your disks. It will infiltrate your chips. Yes, it’s Cloner! It will stick to you like glue. It will modify RAM too. Send in the Cloner!”

What happened to Skrenta? He graduated from Northwestern University and worked for tech firms such as Commodore Business Systems with Amiga Unix, Netscape, Unix Systems Labs, and America Online. He was also one of the founders of the Open Directory Project, an open content directory of World Wide Web links. Skrenta also has experience with founding tech start-ups—he founded Topix LLC, a news aggregation company. He also founded and is currently the CEO of Blekko, Inc., an Internet search engine.

Some of Skrenta’s other projects include dabbling in the multi-user dungeon (MUD), a largely text-only predecessor to today’s massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG). He also developed TASS, the popular threaded Usenet newsreader for Unix systems. In 1989, he started working on a multiplayer simulation game, which became the pay-for-play play by email (PBEM) game Olympia, which was released in 1994 by Shadow Island Games.

Skrenta also maintains a website and blog, Skrentablog, which you can view here.