The Etymology of "Wardialing"

Header image credit: “Free wifi” by Nicolas Nova is licensed under CC BY 2.0

THE QUESTION

This morning I was reading a book called Wi-Foo: The Secrets of Wireless
Hacking
and in it was the explanation -- obviously directed at readers younger than myself -- that the term "wardriving" comes from the wardialing of the 1980s and 1990s.

That got me wondering about the etymology of the verb "to wardial". A quick Wikipedia search for Wardial told me only that it came from the movie WarGames.

The name for this technique originated in the 1983 film WarGames. In the film, the protagonist programs his computer to dial every telephone number in Sunnyvale, CA in order to find other computer systems. 'WarGames Dialer' programs became common on bulletin board systems of the time, with file names often truncated to wardial.exe and the like due to length restrictions on such systems. Eventually, the etymology of the name fell behind as "war dialing" gained its own currency within computing culture.

I had actually assumed that it was the other way around and that the movie's title was a clever wordplay on both playing war games and on wardialing.

So, which came first? The movie or the verb?

Not one to leave a question like that unanswered, I spent the morning searching the Web, UseNet, and several BBS Textfile archives to determine the answer.

THE SEARCH

I began by doing a Google Groups (UseNet) search in English from 1981-1992.

A message dated 1990

I'm searching for the newest release of WARDIAL (A public-domain prg. for IBM-PC-Compatible). Actually I have the version 1.2 but it's dated 1986[...]

got me looking for the WARDIAL program, which sounded promising.

After a search of the BBS textfiles archive at http://textfiles.com, I came up with numerous references to that program, as well as other scanners that called themselves "WarGames dialers," but no use of the verb "to wardial" (or war-dial or war dial).

So, back to the newsgroups I went, this time searching for "WarGames dialers." I was rewarded with a mention on comp.org.fidonet in 1987 from FidoNET Newsletter, Volume 4,#26:

The BBS community is already under legislative threat at the State and Federal level. We cannot fight this trend effectively while our directories sit stocked with cracked Sega games, wargames dialers, and malicious "trojan horses!" Let's demonstrate a little social responsibility by cleaning up our download libraries.

Going back even further in time (1983), I found another clue in the TELECOM Digest V4 #4 from fa.telecom:

--------- Subject: Telco defenses against scanning? While on the subject --
Does anyone know how the phone companies protect themselves and their customers against scanning? I'm sure that after being shown the example in a major movie, plenty of kiddies have written the 10-line Basic program to call a few thousand free local numbers and record whether their modem said "CONNECTED" or not."

No mention of "wardialing" or "WarGames dialers," but clearly that's what they were discussing. This shows that the term "scanning" was in use in 1983 and that the opinion that the movie would popularize the practice was being bandied about.

In 1989 people were still saying "WarGames dialer" on UseNet, as evidenced by
this post on comp.sys.mac, discussing the legalities and ethics of using a sequential scanner to find modems (i.e. wardial):

I recently acquired a hayes comptible modem and I was wondering if there were any sequence dialers available for the mac. You know something like in the movie War Games[...]

At textfiles.com (again), I turned up a 1985 announcement:

Paul H. Levy releases "The Ultimate in WarGames Dialer Programs", Ultra-Dial version 5.1.

It seems that although wardialing was around, no one called it that. The movie obviously popularized the practice, so much so that almost all the programs for wardialing seem to have been called "WarGames dialers" for many years.

I limited my search to pre-1993 because by the time I started getting into BBS use around 1990, I definitely remember the term being used. By the time the infamous ToneLoc was in circulation -- the early '90s -- it was called a "wardialer," although there were still plenty of things advertising themselves as "WarGames dialers" too.

You can still download ToneLoc and Ultra-Dial, as well as many other programs of the era at the textfiles.com program archive.

THE ANSWER

It appears that the Wikipedia was essentially correct.

Wardialer is a contraction of "WarGames dialer," which probably came into use due to the fact that a popular program by Jim Everingham was called WARDIAL due to the necessity to truncate file names at the time. Version 1.2 of this program was dated 1986, so I believe it may have been the first to call itself a "WarGames dialer." If not the first, it was definitely amongst the earliest.

The first written usage of "wardialer" that appears to have been archived online was referring to the ToneLoc program, a wardialer and tone locater, in 1993. Who really said it first? Sadly, many of the BBS textfiles and logs -- where much of the written discussion of wardialing would have taken place -- have been lost in the sands of cyberspace, so it's unlikely that we will ever know.

CONCLUSION, or Who Cares Anyway?

We are several decades into the Digital Revolution now, and our culture has been evolving faster than we can document it. Few things sadden me more than the loss of something that could have lasted forever. Digital information is being lost at hyperspeed.

Someday, as people wardrive, warwalk, warchalk, and even warfly, the connection to the movie and to the early modem culture will be lost. There's a whole generation of people online now who've never even used a dial-up modem.

We need to stop and preserve the information now because later will be too late.

William Gibson, cyberpunk author, futurist, and author of the term "cyberspace" blew it in the first sentence of his first book. "The sky was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel." It was supposed to mean gray and static, but today it would just be blue." -- Jack Diederich at http://jackdied.com/

If you are interested in contributing to the effort to preserve culture, consider adding your own information to the Digital Commons or volunteering to help one of these projects:

The Wikipedia
http://www.wikipedia.org
The free encyclopedia anyone can edit.

TextFiles
http://www.textfiles.com
The BBS textfile archive.

The Internet Archive
http://www.archive.org
The first public multi-media digital archive.

The Creative Commons
http://www.creativecommons.org
The new Digital Commons.