Browser Cookies are a strange name to give a small text file. There are many different stories going around about why browser cookies are called cookies. It is widely accepted that the browser cookie concept can trace its beginnings back to Netscape Communications in 1994. A programmer called Lou Montulli had the idea of using a text file. This file would store partial purchases on each user’s local computer as a way of creating a virtual shopping cart. The story starts to become a little more confused if we look back before Netscape. At this point in time the true beginnings of the term cookie are more hidden. For a more formal definition of a browser cookie you can visit dictionary.com where they provide the basic dictionary view of the work cookie.
Here is a selection of the most popular browser cookie origin stories. Read through them and vote for the one you like best. If you have any other browser cookie stories, then leave a comment.
The Hansel and Gretel Browser Cookies Theory
Some people believe the name for browser cookies came from the fairy tale about two children called Hansel and Gretel. They were able to mark their trail through a dark forest by dropping cookie crumbs behind them. This story paints a very nice picture of how a browser cookie can be used to track where you have been.
The Cookie Monster Easter Egg
Another interesting story is about a large corporate mainframe system. It was written and looked after by a clever programmer. After the programmer left the company, strange things began to happen. Every so often, the computer system would completely stop and the screen would display a message: “Gimme a cookie”. The system would not return to normal until the operator entered “cookie” into the system. The new administrators spent long hours trying to fix the code. No matter how hard they tried they could not get rid of the hidden problem in the system. The root cause was well hidden in the code and could not be removed without completely rewriting the program. Eventually it was decided to leave the code in place and note down the cookie question. Users of the system would be trained to give the machine a cookie! This was the first citation I could track down that showed a challenge/response related to browser cookies.
The Chinese Fortune Cookie
Many people remember the Fortune Program from large Unix systems. At start up the system would present a new quote, joke or general information to the user who was logging in. The saying presented was taken at random from a “cookie file”. This file was often changed by local administrators to add their own personal statements. This was called the Chinese Fortune cookie. So did the browser cookie get its name from this unix program?
Another Browser Cookie story is focused around the “magic cookie” which was often used by programmers to refer to a token or a short piece of data that passed between programs. The contents of this file could not be seen. The contents would not usually be seen until the a program had passed the cookie back to the sender or perhaps another program at a later time. The cookie is often used like a ticket to identify a particular event or transaction. Sounds very familiar to the browser cookies we know today.