25th anniversary of the computer virus? Not so fast

While many people believe a 15-year old created the first computer virus in 1982, I'm not so quick to agree.

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read

The Internet has been abuzz lately claiming we are in the 25th year of the computer virus. And while many people believe a 15-year-old created the first virus in 1982, I'm not so quick to agree.

After digging through some Web sites offering insight into the history of the computer virus, only one thing is constant: Elk Cloner was not the first. Although some publications are claiming the poetic Elk Cloner virus was first, a host of viruses were ravaging computers in the 1970s.

The world's first generally accepted computer was created by Charles Babbage and while many things are uncertain about its design, one thing is not: no viruses infected it.

But if we fast-forward to the 1970s, the world's first computer virus actually sprang up. Called the Creeper virus, it was first detected on ARPAnet--a U.S. military computer network that was the forerunner of the modern Internet. According to Viruslist, the virus was written for the Tenex operating system and was capable of independently gaining access through a modem and copying itself to a remote system. Once infected, the system would display the following message: "I'M THE CREEPER: CATCH ME IF YOU CAN."

To disable the Creeper virus, a new virus called the Reaper was created. Unlike the Creeper, the Reaper virus spread to networked machines looking for Creeper. If it was found, Reaper would immediately delete it. Regardless of its beneficial actions, who can argue that a program replicating itself to networked computers to delete files isn't a virus? Not me.

If you still don't believe me, a new virus called Rabbit infected computers in 1974. Although it was originally harmless, it replicated itself to other machines so quickly that once it hit critical mass, the system performance would slow to a crawl and eventually, the virus would crash. Hmm, sounds like a virus to me.

As if you needed more evidence to prove this isn't the 25th anniversary of the computer virus, 1975 ushered in one of the most legendary viruses ever: Pervading Animal. Created for the Univac 1108, a man named John Walker found a new way of distributing game files. The game, called Animal, was a self-learning variation of 20 questions that required you to simply "think of an animal." Insistent on putting an end to mailing the game out, Walker coded a virus called Pervade that was called by any program on the system and copied itself to every directory the user had access to without the user's knowledge.

Pervading Animal is one of the most debated viruses today. Some analysts argue that it was an unintentional byproduct of a man trying to make his life a little easier, while others claim intent has nothing to do with deciding whether a program is a virus. I judge a virus on what it does. In this case, the program replicated itself quietly behind the scenes and worked its way into every inch of the system. Pervading Animal was a virus.

While Elk Cloner was truly a virus, it was not the first. And although people like to anoint tags to this or that, recognizing the first virus as having occurred 25 years ago is simply incorrect. The sad fact is we are embarking upon more than 30 years of viruses, not 25. And while the early versions may have been a bit rudimentary, each was a virus nonetheless.

Move over Elk Cloner, you're too late.

If you're interested in reading more about the history of the computer virus, click here and here.