HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
September 10, 2007, Herald Journal

Ninth grade prank 25 years ago made history

By MARK OLLIG

In 1982 the Apple II personal computer was being used in many classrooms across the country.

The Apple II computer operating system was stored on a floppy disk which was used when “booting up” the computer.

Richard Skrenta was a fifteen year old freshman in high school who liked to pull pranks and tell practical jokes to his friends.

Skrenta and his friends would often trade computer games stored on a floppy disk, but when one of Skrenta’s friends popped that floppy disk in the computer, it launched an on-screen message that Skrenta had made when modifying the software program that was on the floppy disk.

This was fairly easy to do as the programs were written mostly in BASIC computer language; Skrenta could get in there and make harmless changes to the line code stored on the individual floppy disk.

Some of Skrenta’s friends began to distrust him and refused taking any more computer disks from him.

During winter-break from Skrenta’s high school near Pittsburgh, he began to work on a way to get his modified computer code to be activated automatically.

Skrenta developed what is now known as a “boot sector” virus.

The boot sector is the area on a computer’s hard drive where the code is stored that starts or “boots up” a computer’s operating system.

Using a modified language version of the Disk Operating System (DOS), Skrenta figured out how to “place” a copy of his newly made computer virus onto the computer’s hard disk memory.

Whenever someone would insert a clean disk into the infected computer and type the command to list all the files in it, a copy of Skrenta’s program code would get written onto that user’s clean floppy disk also. This newly “infected” disk – which acted normal to the user – up to this point anyway, was passed on to other users, which then replicated itself onto other computers in different locations.

Skrenta’s newly created virus had the ability to copy itself (which is the decisive factor when one defines a computer virus), making it the first true computer virus.

Skrenta started circulating floppy disks containing the computer virus among his friends at school and he also made sure a copy was given to the local computer club.

Here is where Skrenta made it into the computer history books . . . every 50th time a person booted one of those infected disks, a poem that Skrenta wrote would appear on the user’s computer screen displaying the following text message: “Elk Cloner: The program with a personality. It will get on all your disks, it will infiltrate your chips, yes it’s Cloner! It will stick to you like glue, it will modify ram too. Send in the Cloner!”

The Elk Cloner “virus” did not cause any damage to the user’s computer, as he created it only as a practical joke. The ability of this program to copy itself made it possible for Skrenta to continue to annoy his friends without the need to physically modify the floppy disks themselves anymore.

This virus is reported to have spread in what computer users call “in the wild” which means that the virus must spread as a result of normal day-to-day operations on and between the computers of unsuspecting users.

Today, that former high school freshman, Richard Skrenta is 40 years old and heads a company called Blekko Inc.

When asked about being the person who created the first computer virus, Skrenta recently said, “It was some dumb little practical joke. I guess if you had to pick between being known for this and not being known for anything, I’d rather be known for this. But it’s an odd placeholder for [all that] I’ve done.”

Skrenta also said, “The Apple II was such a great computer to learn on. You turn it on, and you can jump right into a ROM monitor and start typing in assembly [language]. Those were the days.”

“Elk Cloner” is self-replicating, like all other viruses except it is not a “malicious” virus like those of today. It was, however, the predecessor of all the security problems that would grow as more people connected their computers over the Internet.

In 1986 the first computer virus invaded the computers using Microsoft’s operating system. Two brothers in Pakistan wrote the program which was called “Brain” into the computer’s boot-sector. This virus did not cause any serious damage, but the brothers wrote the code so that the telephone number of the computer repair shop they operated would be displayed on the infected computer user’s screen.

Richard Skrenta’s website-blog is located at http://www.skrenta.com. Here you can see the printout of that first computer virus code. The virus was named The Smiling Elk. The date shows it was created on January 16, 1982.