It’s usually difficult to pinpoint the origins of a physical virus, but when it comes to the term “computer virus,” we can trace that back to the graduate school work of computer scientist, Fred Cohen. On Nov. 10, 1983, he gave a presentation at a security seminar at Pennsylvania’s LeHigh University, on the makings of a computer virus.

The early beginnings of the term virus

As a University of Southern California PhD student, Cohen had created a piece of malware as an experiment for a class taught by none other than Leonard Adleman—the “A” of the RSA algorithm. When loaded onto a machine via floppy disk, the malware “infected” the computer and made copies of itself, spreading to other machines. Adleman, who served as Cohen’s thesis adviser, noted the similarity to a biological virus, and the analogy stuck. It took Cohen’s virus an average of less than 30 minutes to take control of a machine.

The benevolent proof-of-concept code Cohen demonstrated in 1983 at LeHigh was not the first of its kind, but it put the technology community on notice about the risk of malware. As early at 1949, John von Neumann was lecturing on self-replicating computer programs at the University of Illinois. In 1972, Austrian computer scientist Veith Risak published an article describing a virus for the SIEMENS 4004/35 computer system, and in 1980, Jürgen Kraus wrote a thesis in which he theorized that computer programs could behave like viruses.

Still, Cohen was the first to publicly demonstrate this capability, and Adleman’s use of the term “virus” was the one that stuck. Cohen went on to define a virus as “a program that can infect other programs by modifying them to include a, possibly evolved, version of itself” and published his own thesis in the February 1987 issue of Computers & Security journal.

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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