I love computer history. I love looking back to see how far we’ve come. My first computer (my family’s first computer, really) had a horizontal tower and a black & white monitor that sat on top. At my elementary school, they had 16-color monitors on which I played (of course) The Oregon Trail, but also some kind of clock game where you simply choose a clock and input a time between one and 60 seconds. (The clock would count down the time and when the hand struck 12, a two-frame animation would play. The best combo was a 60-second bomb clock. You could really make kids grit their teeth while waiting for that climactic explosion!)

I love the bygone artifacts, the stories, and the movies. I love listening to The Web Behind podcast. I love reading about old skool hackers. I love this page of under construction gifs. And I love the movie “Hackers”.

There’s so much ancient history out there—Y2K, dial-up, floppy disks, SCSI ports, punch cards—and yet most of this is not ancient enough that these days are forgotten, at least, not by a few:

  • The Web Behind (a subset of The Web Ahead) is a podcast about the history of the web, in which Jen Simmons and Eric Meier talk with the people who lived through the early days of the web.
  • The Archive Team seeks out sites that are deleting batches of content (notoriously, Geocities) and preserves copies for history.
  • And now I hope to contribute some small part to honoring the past, albeit a slightly darker side, because after watching Hackers, I just had to know more about the Cookie Monster virus.

The Cookie Monster Virus

When I first saw the Cookie Monster virus pop up in the movie back in 1996, I had some vague recollection that it was based on an IRL virus; I recall a hacker friend may have told me that it was the world’s first virus, but I don’t really remember.

More recently, though, my curiosity got the best of me, and so I went to Wikipedia expecting to find some information about it. There was plenty of content about Cookie Monsters, but there was no page to be found for the virus, so I got to googling and eventually pulled up a few different stories, including a first-hand account by the Cookie Monster’s creator, C. D. Tavares. Having armed myself with this information, I decided to start a Cookie Monster Wikipedia page myself. The most interesting bits, to me, are as follows:

  • Cookie Monster is actually not a virus because it doesn’t self-replicate. At worst, it’s malware, but originally it was just a temporary pesky prank.
  • Cookie Monster was written for several computer systems, including Atari.
  • Cookie Monster was actually not named after the muppet Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. It was named after an obnoxious cartoon bear that peddled cereal. But…

Who Was This Bear?

I went to Google and YouTube and was never able to conclusively figure out the bear that Tavares was talking about.

After coming up empty-handed, I realized that Tavares’ article had an email address attached, so I decided to take my curiosity directly to the source and sent a message to the program’s creator, himself. I asked him what inspired this confection-motivated computer creature. To my delight, he emailed back a few hours later. With his permission, I'm going to share his response.

Who was this Cookie Bear?

You're asking a guy who has to go hunting for his iPhone twice a day about something that happened in 1970–71.  Geezer memory may be a LIFO phenomenon, but unfortunately it's not strictly monotonic.

(I love that he opened with a programming joke.)

I was going to hazard that the bear might have been the mascot for Cookie Crisp cereal, but I see that was introduced in 1977, and so can't possibly have been.

I remember Sugar Bear (curiously, I currently have a retriever pup named Sugar Bear), but I don't ever remember cookies being part of any of their ads.

It's quite possible the bear I remember was the Andy Williams bear.  I couldn't pick him out of a crowd today.  I looked up some old clips on YouTube, and that bear is a lot more talkative than the bear I thought I remembered.  What I remember is something that would just look up at another character and say, "Cookie?"  (an acting style somewhere between Scooby Doo and Teller.)

The one thing I do remember clearly is the gab session I had across the hall in Crafts 303 in 1970–71 (Seth was a year behind me, 303 was a triple, and upperclassmen usually all snagged the singles and doubles as fast as they could) with Seth Stein, Charlie Conklin, and whoever their third roomie was (Nick Paras?), where Seth told us all about the Brown U grad-student IBM computer operator in the windowed, locked-off room who used to manually lock his victim's terminals from the master console and type “Give me a cookie” to them until they “gave him a cookie,” whereupon he would unlock them and let them get back to work.

Whether or not this actually happened doesn't matter, of course, only that Seth told us the story about it happening.  And this practical joke had SOME reference to a pop-culture cookie bear that we all recognized at the time, which could have been Andy Williams’, or some cereal, or something we were familiar with at that time… but which I've since forgotten or mixed up with some other memory.

In any event, it was that story that was the inspiration for the automated version, much of which I wrote on a newly-installed 2741 terminal in the basement of the (un-air-conditioned) Senior House dorm that summer.

A fantastic response for what is essentially “I don’t remember.” He paints a great picture of life back then, which in a lot of ways is not that different than today: rumors, pranks, and in-jokes between computer programmers in a stuffy basement.

I followed up to thank him, but also because I just had to know what he thought of his little prank being immortalized in Hackers. It turns out, he’s never even seen it!:

I've never seen the movie.  I see somebody told me that once before, in January of 2011, at which time I mumbled something about putting it on my Netflix queue, but never did.  So I just remedied that.

He also added:

The only other “formal” mention I'm aware of was a minor technical review published by some computer consultant in the early '90s(?) that called the cookie monster the “first known computer virus.”  I don't think it was a justifiable claim, but it was nice to be remembered.

As a practical joke, the cookie monster was a very ethical hack.  It was fun, and it was entirely non-destructive. It ran its course, and then it left. Those were gentler days.

These stories, along with whatever is on Wikipedia, are all that I have been able to find documented about the Cookie Monster computer program. If you happen to know anything more about it, or if you were there—I’m looking at you, Seth Stein, Charlie Conklin, and possibly Nick Paras—write it down, publish some history about it, or even just send me a note and I’ll fill in the gaps here—especially the identity of that obnoxious bear!