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Episode 14 Notes - Creeping Towards Viruses

Oct 9, 2019

Computer viruses in 2019 are a real threat, but that wasn't always the case. In fact, some of the earliest viruses were not even that real. A perfect example of this is The Scarred Man, a sci-fi short story written in 1969 by Gregory Benford. First published in Venture Science Fiction in 1970, The Scarred Man includes the earliest depiction of a computer virus, right down to the name. And when you get right down to the details what Benford describes sounds shockingly like modern viruses. The program, called "VIRUS", starts out as malicious code hidden on a single computer. It then runs at random intervals and attempts to connect to another computer at random(in the story it's via phone lines). The virus is able to spread quickly and infect many computers causing performance issues on affected systems. No one, besides VIRUS's creators, know the true origin of the plague until long after it has spread.

The interesting twist is that the programers who made VIRUS go into the business of removing their malicious code from computers, for pay of course. The Scarred Man was met with poor reviews, both by critics and Benford himself. It definitely falls into the category of generic pulp sci-fi. Despite that, it still serves as a good prediction of things to come. If you want to read the story for yourself Benford has a copy of it, complete with author's notes, posted on his website(

Only a year after The Scarred Man hit shelves the first real virus would be written. This first outing, called Creeper, came about not as an attack but rather as a demonstration program. Originally written by Bob Thomas and later modified by Ray Tomlinson, Creeper was part a larger of distributed computing research effort at BBN in the 70s. The program was first meant as a way to test migrating processes from one machine to another. In this iteration Creeper was a traveling program moving from machine to machine across the ARPANET. Soon after, it was modified to stay on machines it traveled through, and thus Creeper became the world's first virus. But what did it actually do to 'infected' machines? Well, not much. It just printed out "I'M THE CREEPER : CATCH ME IF YOU CAN!".

If you want to learn more about the early days of the computer virus, you can listen to my episode on the topic:

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