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The joy of the hack

A reporter just called me and wanted to talk about my virus, Elk Cloner, that I wrote back in 1982, when I was in the 9th grade. Apparently it's the 25th anniversary of the virus and since I wrote the first one she wanted my thoughts.

First thought: "25 years? Aaaah I'm old!"

Fortunately I still regularly get the feeling I had back when I wrote cloner.

"Why did I do it", she asked. "Was it malicious?"

No, not malicious. It was a practical joke combined with a hack. A wonderful hack.

Back then nothing was networked. We had these computers in a lab, and there was software for them on floppy disks. You stick in the disk and run the software. Simple.

The aha moment was when I realized I could essentially get my program to move around by itself. I could give it its own motive force, by having it hide in the resident RAM of the machine between floppy changes, and hitching a ride onto the next floppy that would be inserted. Whoa. That would be cool.

Insight without implementation is worthless, so to work I went.

That aha feeling is the burst that let's you know you just had a really cool idea. The moment you realize a hack is possible. NewHoo was like that. How do we build a web directory with human labor if we have no money? There were elements in Topix too that made us giddy when we thought of them. The hack doesn't have to be code, it can be little business insights. Even groups of people and individuals have hacks.

The essence of the hack isn't just realizing you can use a system in a new, unexpected way. It's getting a disproportionate effect from your effort. It's catalyzing potential energy stored in the system.

And the hack often changes the whole world. The user-generated content model we developed with NewHoo is ubiquitous now; it was the main inspiration behind Wikipedia. Viruses and exploits are of course all too common. You can't put the genie back in the bottle.

The only consolation is that the genie would have gotten out anyway. But it's fun to be the first to let it out. :-)


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The joy of the hack:

» Geschichte 2.0 from Strenge Jacke!
So neu ist der Zusatz 2.0 gar nicht. Genau genommen wurde sogar das erste bekannte Computervirus, 1982 von Rich Skrenta programmiert, namens Elk Cloner in der Version 2.0 ausgeliefert. Das ist doppeltes Geschichteschreiben: Das erste Virus, in einer Ve... [Read More]

» Spooky "Elk Cloner" movie from Skrentablog
An art school student has made a spooky CGI movie "in honor of" Elk Cloner (that first virus thing that I seem to be associated with...) He's got a ton of details about how he did the animation, even... [Read More]

Comments (11)


Erm ... actually, Ward Cunningham's WikiWikiWeb (http://www.c2.com/cgi/wiki) - the first wiki - was the main inspiration behind Wikipedia.

dmoz -> nupedia -> wikipedia:
"The basic concept came from the open directory project Dmoz (http://dmoz.org), short for Directory Mozilla."

Jimmy Wales was also the first licensee of the ODP data when we released it, for his project Bomis (which was a webring system). He had a front-row seat for the ODP experiment and quickly adopted it himself -- ultimately, far more successfully.

Certainly, the wiki technology turned out to be a fantastic implementation platform.


Hehe, grats to know you contributed to computer history =] was just reading about this on a 'feed on wired, and thought I'd look at the original source... wow I'm glad I didn't go to school/college with youxD my discs wouldn't be safe!

Happy 25th, Rich!

And to think I was coding video games (in HEX !!!) into my Commodre 64 and Apple II's and you were coding cooler things like this. I guess that explains a lot and, yes, you are getting old.



9th Sage:

I was just reading about the anniversary of this virus...even if it IS a virus, from a technical standpoint I got to give you some props...I'm pretty sure there wasn't really anything like this at the time, and reading about the 'hack'...quite clever. :) I can't believe I hadn't read about this virus before.


I had an Apple II virus in '84 or '85.. It was called CancerDOS IIRC, and I haven't heard of it since. It would wreck the disks eventually.

Elron Nightshade:

hi rich big fan love cloner very funny, give me a shout and keep in touch


in honor of elk cloner...


I miss the days when viruses were just annoying or when they did funny things like make all the icons fall of your screen or replace instances of 'oo' with 'OOO'. Now there's no fun, it's all about stealing bank information and getting money or pushing some offer on to the people you hack.

kunai kun:

wow! amazing i wasnt born in the 80's im only 14 but, i think its really cool how you did that. lol i just searched whats a computer cookie and your name pops up. awesome but uhhh...(dont hack me please) just got this laptop. awesome story. try to hack the FBI next time. you would become more famous then obama!


Well done, Rich. We still hate you for making the virus in the first place. :)

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