What Are Computer Cookies?

the mag
Liz Barclay
Liz Barclay / Liz Barclay

Browser cookies are the Internet’s memory. They remember your email password and the items in your Amazon shopping cart so you don’t have to. In 1994, Lou Montulli, the same genius who first suggested putting animated GIFs on the Web, invented these chunks of data. But he wasn’t the first person to use the word cookie, which had already been part of tech lingo for years. At the time, programmers called special packets of data “magic cookies”  (possibly as a shout-out to fortune cookies, since the data contained messages). But Eric S. Raymond, author of The New Hacker’s Dictionary, suggests a fuzzier origin.

In the early 1960s, a sketch on The Andy Williams Show featured a man in a bear suit begging Williams for cookies. UNIX programmers supposedly loved it so much they built traps in their code as a tribute. When the program would freeze, the code, much like the bear, would ask for a cookie. Once you typed “cookie,” the system returned to normal. (This could be an urban legend, but even if that’s true, the tale was popular enough in computer geek circles to help cement “cookie” into the lingo.)

Who said a man in a bear suit never changed the world?