“I am a creeper … catch me if you can!” The year was 1971, and this message began to appear on several ARPANET computers. At that time, nobody had seen anything like it in the computer world, a program that replicated itself and spread from one node to another through the network.
The program was called Creeper (creeper), and today is considered the first computer virus in history. It was not a malicious program, and it simply traveled through the network replicating itself and showing this message wherever it went. However, it was the beginning of something, since as a direct response to the challenge that was supposed to end soon after the first antivirus was born.
The first virus, which was not a virus
The first computer programs capable of replicating themselves were already predicted in 1949 by the mathematician John von Neumann, who was the first to theorize about something similar to a computer virus or worm. However, it was not until 1971 that the engineer Robert H. (Bob) Thomas created his Creeper turning the theory into reality.
Thomas worked for BBN Techonologies in Massachusetts, United States, the same company that employed the creator of the email Ray Tomlinson, and where other geniuses like Vinton Cerf, Robert Kahn or JCR Licklider worked.
Creeper was an experiment designed to demonstrate that a program could be able to travel the network jumping from one computer to another while performing a specific task. Their goal was the DEC PDP-10 computers with the TENEX operating system, which were the predominant ones in the research centers and American universities that made up ARPANET.
However, despite being considered the first virus in history, in practice not everyone agrees with being defined as such. Not only because the concept of computer virus would not be born until the 80, but because it was not meant to hurt, but to demonstrate the mobile applications of the software.
Creeper could print a file, but then it would stop. Then it looked for another computer with TENEX, it established a connection, it was copied in him beginning to show his message and it was erased of the equipment in which it had been. Come on, that more than replicating itself (something that only a few times), was jumping from node to node.
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But it was still a piece of software fast and elusive, and that was a challenge for the rest of computer geniuses of the time. This made Creeper a revulsive that served to end up creating what we could define as the first antivirus in history.
It was called Reaper, which means reaper for that reason to go against the “creeper”, and was designed very shortly after by the father of the email Ray Tomlinson. His only mission was to eliminate Creeper from the computers where he was hiding, for which he imitated his attitude by traveling and replying himself among the computers on the network.
The concept develops in the seventies
Two years after Creeper and Reaper, in 1973, the film Westworld by Michael Crichton showed the concept of computer virus as we know it today. He used it as the thread of a film in which a malfunction makes the robots of a park behave as they should not. One of the characters defines the problem as a pattern that suggests an infectious disease process that extends from one machine to another.
But it was a year later when it arrived that perhaps it is the first malicious computer virus that is known. It was called Rabbit, rabbit, and played without stopping making copies of itself in a single computer to clog the system reducing performance and causing it to end up blocking.
Then, in 1981, the first virus came to great escape. It was called Elk Cloner and was written by Richard Skrenta for the Apple II, considered particularly vulnerable due to storage of its operating system on diskette. The virus was installed on a computer when an infected floppy disk was inserted, and it monitored the disk accesses to infect the boot sectors of others that were inserted to jump from computer to computer.
The author of the piece of software himself admitted that just by restarting the computer the virus was erased from its internal memory. However at the time there was very little knowledge of the dangers of malware and its methods of expansion, so the habits of the users ended up making Elk Cloner achieve a remarkable reach.
Five years later, in 1986, the first virus for IBM PC compatible computers was released. It was called BRAIN, and it infected the boot sectors of the MS-DOS operating system. It was distributed through unofficial copies of the operating system, and its purpose was to monitor the software in an attempt to stop and account for the illegal copies that were made.
It had the particularity to warn the owners of the computers that had been infected, offering the contact information of its author. In the message that showed you told you that you had been infected , and that you contacted them for the vaccine. Since then, computer viruses have not stopped evolving, but that’s another story.