History of Computer Viruses, Part 1: The Early Days

Chalk Talk video highlights the concept and behavior of first viruses to strike computers

The concept of a computer virus was first documented in an academic paper in 1949. Described by renowned mathematician and physicist John von Neumann as “self-replicating programs,” the idea was formed from intellectual curiosity rather than any kind of malicious intent.

In 1984, Fred Cohen conducted a study of computer viruses and wrote a formal definition, describing them as “a program that can ‘infect’ other programs by modifying them to include a possibly evolved copy of itself.” A few years later, the first virus found in the wild, called Brain, was able to propagate itself around the world via floppy disk.

Unlike modern computer viruses, these early viruses didn’t attempt to hide or mask their identity. In fact, many would advertise to their host that they had been infected and would even declare the name of the virus or it’s author. Attackers were pursuing recognition and fame in these early days, and the viruses they created reflected that.

Enjoy this video and check back in a few weeks for our next video on this topic, where we’ll describe the evolution of computer viruses into weapons that cause billions of dollars in damages, and give rise to the anti-virus industry.

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