In the 1940s and 50s computers were like monsters from “The war of the worlds”. Imagine a huge device filled with a mix of relays, wires and vacuum tubes — that’s exactly what an IBM SSEC looked like. But while hardware engineers were struggling to fit these humongous species into smaller boxes and make them work quicker, mathematicians were already peeking beyond the horizon, trying to figure out whether someday computer “thoughts,” or programs, will be able to replicate themselves.
In 1949, American-Hungarian scientist John von Neumann wrote the "Theory of self-reproducing automata" – an essay that is considered to be the blueprint for a new class of software that eventually evolved into computer viruses.
By the early 1970s, when the first pieces of self-replicating assembler code were published in scientific magazines, movie producers already realized the dangers of viruses running wild. In 1973, Hollywood classic “Westworld,” — the early work of Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, featured androids in a futuristic theme park going out of control because of what movie characters call “the disease of machinery.” It was actually the first ever depiction of a computer virus in a film.
In “Westworld”’s cinematic trailer on YouTube you can see humanoid robots chasing tourists, as engineers frantically try to stop the ruthless killing machines.
“They are not responding!
— Should we cut the main power grid, Sir?
— Shut down, shut down immediately!
— We have no control over the robots at all!”
Even though the term “computer virus” has a negative feel to it, most early viruses were either toys or practical jokes made by curious programmers. Malicious intent was, and mostly is more typical for other types of digital beasts, such as worms, keyloggers and ransomware – programs that steal people’s private data and quite often – their money.
However, some tricks used by the early virus creators were quite cruel. Imagine that all your user documents are listed in a special table – the most crucial part of the system called FAT, or file allocation table. You launch a new computer game from a floppy disk borrowed from a friend, and all of a sudden… you see a one-armed bandit interface with three boxes on your screen, asking you to match all three symbols – a sure sign your system is infected with a beast called “Casino”.
Here’s Mykko Hypponen, a programmer from Finland, who studied computer virology for decades, talking about the Casino virus at the 2011 DEFCON hackers convention:
Now the Casino virus is neat… You have five credits, and if you win, it’s gonna write the allocation table back to the drive. And if you reset the machine – you lose, cause it has already deleted [the FAT].
Most early viruses were able to spread with the use of floppy discs and magnetic tape, but they gained even wider recognition with the development of computer networks.
"I'm the creeper, catch me if you can!" – was the message displayed by the “Creeper” virus, which had ARPANET, the forerunner of the World Wide Web as its habitat. The “Creeper,” written by Bob Thomas in 1971, had its own antidote program called “The Reaper”.
Now, in the 21st century, when the world is interconnected with a web of communication lines, the average PC virus is not about fun and games. It’s quick on the draw, powerful and unlike the digital software dinosaurs of the early computing era – it stays in the shadows, giving the user no clue of its presence.