The First Computer Virus

A BASF double-density 5¼-inch diskette.

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Computer viruses are the plague that every computer user fears. To inoculate ourselves from data oblivion, we purchase increasingly more sophisticated anti-viral software.  We owe it all to Richard Skrenta, who, in 1982 at the age of 15, created the first wild computer virus to infect home computers. Why would he do such a thing? It was a prank.  For a young high school student, it was the ultimate prank he could play on his friends.

In 1982 there were almost no computers with hard drives.  Operating systems and programs had to be loaded for each use from 5-1/4” floppy disks.  Skrenta and his friends often traded or pirated software from each other.  Each time his friends got software from Skrenta they also got personal messages from him on their computer screens.  It was fun while it lasted, but eventually his friends stopped getting floppies from him.

That’s when the self-taught programmer invented Elk Cloner, a completely harmless but extremely annoying self-replicating program.  The virus would load into memory and monitor every instance that the disk was accessed.  If it a found a floppy disk that wasn’t it infected it automatically inserted itself into the boot sector. Since then, viruses are born every minute and security software works hard to keep up.

Where is Richard Skrenta today?  Skrenta graduated from Northwestern University and has worked with the Unix Systems Labs and Sun Microsystems.  Recently he’s launched a brand new internet browser called Blekko.  His goal is to out search Google.

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