On March 6, 1992, many quite sober experts on the computer industry were overcome by apocalyptic hyperventilation -- and all because of a few hundred lines of code that came to be known as the Michelangelo virus.
It was the biggest non-event since Geraldo broke into Al Capone's tomb. The virus affected 20,000 systems, a fraction of the 5 million computers that some observers predicted could be brought down by Michelangelo.
"The media fed off each other and the story went ballistic," said Rob Rosenberger, an expert on virus hoaxes, whose Web site, Computer Virus Myths, tracks virus hoaxes and scares such as Michelangelo. "So-called experts, like computer salesman and anti-virus marketing people, forecasted devastation."
Virus still around
The Michelangelo virus, which still triggers when a computer's clock registers the date March 6, coincides with the famed painter Michelangelo's birthday. Any PC that had the virus would have a blank disk drive if it was powered up on March 6.
That strength is also its weakness, said Rosenberger.
"The problem with Michelangelo," explained Rosenberger, "is that it wipes itself out every year by killing its host. You can't live very long with that sort of behavior."
Rosenberger thinks the virus will not hit one machine this year. In a poll conducted last year, not one anti-virus center reported a case of the virus.
Still, anti-virus researchers believe a small number of PCs will be "whacked" by Michelangelo. "I believe that 1,000 or so PCs will be hit this year," said David Stang, manager of anti-virus software firm Quarterdeck's Anti-virus Research Center. "I would be surprised if the number was greater than 4,000."
A bit of media history
Not bad for a 6-year-old computer virus. Discovered in 1991, Michelangelo was first recognized by the media when a company shipped 500 PCs infected with the virus in January 1992.
After comments by John McAfee, founder of anti-virus firm McAfee Associates -- now, Network Associates Inc. -- that estimated anywhere from 50,000 to 5 million computers could be hit by Michelangelo, media reports began to multiply faster than the virus itself.
By the time another company shipped 900 copies of an infected program, the media apocalypse pump was primed and ready to spout doom and gloom. Up to and including March 6, the reports continued.
But on March 7, silence.
It was an amazing display of media power, remarked Rosenberger. "The anti-virus companies have to take some of the blame," he said, "But the main responsibility for the scare falls on the media."
With the Millennium bug right around the corner, will the year 2000 be any different?