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Chapter 12. Viruses and the Damage They Can Do > History of Computer Viruses

History of Computer Viruses

There are a lot of opinions as to when the first computer virus was born. What we know for sure is that Charles Babbage, the father of computing, would not have had one on his machine. On the other hand, the Univax 1108 and IBM 360/370 computers in the middle 1970s already carried viruses.

Charles Babbage (1791–1871)

Babbage is often called the father of computing, although he never actually built a computer. He never was able to secure funding to build a working model.

The device he envisioned, the Analytical Engine, encompassed concepts that later came to be an integral part of the modern computer. It was designed to manipulate symbols, sequential control, branching, and looping. It was intended to use loops of Jacquard's punched cards (an 1800s invention of a French silk weaver, Joseph-Marie Jacquard, to control the warp and weft threads of a loom by recording patterns of holes in a string of cards. This invention was later used in player pianos, music boxes, and data entry for early computers). The Analytical Engine would make decisions based on the results of previous computations. In keeping with the modern technology of the time, it would be steam driven. This was the second computational device Babbage dreamed up. The first was the Difference Engine, a mechanical device to compile mathematical tables.

A contemporary of Babbage was Augusta Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. She fully understood the concepts and vision of Babbage. She was a gifted mathematician and designed a program to compute a mathematical sequence known as the Bernoulli numbers. Because of this work she is credited with being the first computer programmer, and long after her death in 1979, the programming language Ada was named after her.

Babbage held a chair at Cambridge. He was a mathematician (primarily in the calculus of functions) and an inventor. His inventions include: the cowcatcher, dynamometer, standard railroad gauge, uniform postal rates, occulting lights for lighthouses, Greenwich time signals, and the heliograph ophthalmoscope (a device to study the retina of the eye). He found beauty in diverse things: in stamped buttons, ciphers, lock picking, stomach pumps, railways, and tunnels. He was a promoter of man's mastery over nature.

He was fascinated by fire. He once was baked in an oven at 265 degrees for five or six minutes, and on another occasion he was lowered into Mt. Vesuvius to view molten lava. He was offbeat, especially for Victorian times. He argued that miracles were not violations of laws of nature but could exist in a mechanistic world. He was not good at speaking in public. He admitted he was too impatient, too severe with criticism, too crotchety. He wasn't much of a diplomat.

He didn't like music, and he despised street musicians. (He calculated that 25% of his work power was destroyed by street disturbances.) He wrote letters to the London Times complaining about this outrage. He was able to get “Babbage's Act” enacted, which outlawed street nuisances. However, it wasn't enforceable and was unpopular. It made him the target of ridicule. A steady parade of street performers wandered and lingered outside his home. One brass band played for five hours.

Perhaps because of these and other eccentricities, he was denied funding by the British government. History has said that even if he were able to create this machine, it wouldn't work because it was too advanced for the technology of the times. However, five years after Babbage's death, an obscure American inventor, George Barnard Grant, presented a full-scale difference engine of his own design at the Philadelphia Centennial Fair. This machine was 8 feet wide and 5 feet high, with over 15,000 moving parts, less graceful or inventive than Babbage's visions, but it worked. Evidently, the technology could tolerate the demands. It's a shame that the father of computing never saw his “child.”



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