The first days of the screensaver: Magic and Flying Toasters
May 4, 2013 2:46 PM   Subscribe

In the beginning there was Windows 2.0 its screen, and it was either on or off, but never was it "saved." The developers at Dynamic Karma said "let's make some pretty graphics while your computer is idle" or something of that sort, and lo, they made Magic, and it was good. The people rejoiced, and asked, "why for are you giving this away, when we would happily pay for it?" And then they united with software engineers at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, and they brought forth Flying Toasters, after figuring out how to build the screen saver structure on the Mac.

Low End Mac has a total of four articles with interviews on the history of After Dark, reminscing about the various modules included with the original software. There were various follow-up versions, and After Dark was even brough to OS X.

If you're looking to rekindle memories, or review an era before your time, here's an online classic Flying Toasters simulator and a low-resolution clip of the original Flying Toasters, complete with music and blurry lyrics. Oh Internet has the lyrics and other related bits of Flying Toaster history, and here's a YouTube clip of 281 different After Dark modules, each shown for a moment.

If you're more of a Magic person, Dynamic Karma still offers their original 16-bit screensaver for Windows for free, along with 32-bit Magic 2000, and the Dynamic Karma screensaver.
posted by filthy light thief (56 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
The fact that the money from After Dark became is one of the weirdest "remember them?" moments.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:53 PM on May 4, 2013 [14 favorites]

Aw, right now I wish my dad was around so I could forward this to him. One of many software packages he brought home that I wasted altogether too much time with as a kid.
posted by avocet at 2:54 PM on May 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I used to love Bad Dog. Was he an After Dark creation? I miss Bad Dog. Bad Dog was good.
posted by taff at 2:55 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

No discussion of screensavers is complete without reference to Jamie Zawinski's xscreensaver.
posted by incster at 3:02 PM on May 4, 2013 [7 favorites]

The Star Trek version of After Dark may have been my favorite. Spock came out, scanned your desktop, played the harp, shot holes in the screen with his phaser, and mind-melded with a Horta.

Complete with "PAIN!"

Good times. I think the one I used most was the random graph generator, since you could enter in your own labels and plot things like "Satellite of Love cookie consumption."
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 3:10 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can I get some love for the Novell utilization snake? Text-mode, got longer the busier your CPU was. The nascent versions of Novell were in the early 80s, so could it even be the first graphical screensaver? It certainly would have predated Windows.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 3:11 PM on May 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Omigod. In about 1991, my then-boyfriend brought an After Dark t-shirt back for me from MacWorld. Nothing has ever made me feel so 133t.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 3:14 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Taff, Bad Dog was one of the creations. Wikipedia has a list of many modules, but there was also the ability to make your own modules. And then there were the modules made for other product lines, like Star Trek and Simpsons (almost 25 minutes long!).
posted by filthy light thief at 3:14 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

No discussion would be complete without mentioning Dotcom flameout PointCast.
posted by humanfont at 3:20 PM on May 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Back in the day, my mom's computer had a screensaver that actually caused pixel burn. It was a still image of a haunted house, and various things crept in and out of it, flashed lights, etc. Then, after a while, I noticed that there was a ghost image of the house on the screen when it was dark.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:22 PM on May 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

"Flying out of the sun, the smell of toast is in the air..something something da-dunn, the flying toasters will be there!"

Oh man, I loved that. And Bad Dog, too. It's funny how some of the best ideas come out first and it's hard to get them back once they go away.
posted by bleep at 3:24 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I own an inflatable flying toaster. I miss After Dark. I am officially old.
posted by cccorlew at 3:26 PM on May 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Wow. I cannot believe how many of those one second clips each brought back a wave of nostalgia. I regularly used so many of those. I used to love watching them. I had forgotten that Lunatic Fringe was a screensaver!
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 3:34 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Man alive, Pointcast. It was all fun and games until everyone's workstations all refreshed at the same time and hosed the corporate Internet connection. And that Haunted House one. That was part of Windows 95, if I'm not mistaken - a special edition, if memory serves. There were sound effects, too, I think.

One of the coolest savers I ever saw was on a Mac years ago, and it was simply a zooming fractal explorer sort of thing.

I run a subset of the xscreensavers now on my Mac, but they're mostly the ones that make it look old - pong, Apple2, BSOD, etc.
posted by jquinby at 4:09 PM on May 4, 2013

Marine Aquarium was the ultimate screensaver, towards the end of their usefulness, but man it was CPU intensive. For a while there, I knew a hack that would make it my desktop, but work only proceeded at about a 70% pace, and then less than that really because fishes!... what was I doing?

The only thing I ever wrote in Basic was a screensaver for our Atari 400, (16 different colors of randomly-angled lines appearing and disappearing) and because we had no way to store the program and it took so long to type in, we left it running for like 3 days before we could bring ourselves to end it.
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:19 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

My favorite screensaver was Todd Rundren's Utopia GrokWare FlowFazer (now available as an App for iPhones and the like).
posted by cleroy at 4:23 PM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I loved these screen savers so much!
It's a shame the download linked in their website is not working.
It would have been really nice to get the source code and try to get it working on a modern machine!
posted by sockpuppetdirect at 4:32 PM on May 4, 2013

Hey. You. Wanna know what time it is? Uhhhh! Uhhhh!
posted by bpm140 at 4:34 PM on May 4, 2013

After Dark is one of the major arguments (for geeks, anyway) in favor of copyright limitation: we can't have this cool thing because nobody knows who owns it anymore and everybody is afraid of having their lives ruined in court.

We know this cool thing, we want this cool thing, it's right over there, but nobody can touch it because it was sold to somebody 30 years ago and then they sold it to somebody else, who in turn sold it to somebody else and now it belongs to Lord, Rentier and Royalist, LLC potentially forever.

Copyright should last the life of the author(s) or 20 years from the date of sale. I can't think of a reason that this would be unduly burdensome.
posted by Avenger at 4:48 PM on May 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

No discussion of screensavers is complete without reference to Jamie Zawinski's xscreensaver.
posted by incster at 6:02 PM on May 4 [3 favorites −] Favorite added! [!]

The point at which Linux distros stopped shipping bouncing cows in the default install will be the high water mark of the computer revolution.
posted by mcrandello at 5:15 PM on May 4, 2013

I've been using BOINC for years now. They look cool, and my computer is probably more productive when I'm not using it.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 5:15 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

sockpuppetdirect, which download page are you talking about? You can download 16-bit Magic and 32-bit Magic 2000 from the link below the fold. I ran Magic 2000 on my 32-bit Vista laptop without issue, and it's now my screensaver of choice =)

As for After Dark, it's a commercially available product. I looked for 3rd party modules, but had no luck. Only now did I think to look for clones. Here's a Starry Night clone, and they run on my Windows laptop. Here's a Starry Night clone for OS X. Here's a Flying Toasters clone for Mac (full) and Windows (limited).

As of 2008, there won't be native Gentoo support for After Dark modules, sorry. But that page does include links to some 3rd party modules. Those links are dead, but has archives of both pages.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:22 PM on May 4, 2013

I loved the Itchy And Scratchy module in the Simpson's collection. It was truly inspired. It featured things like having your own folders being used as weapons in the battle: making the cat eat a closed folder, then the mouse double-clicks the cat making him explode as the window opens. Brilliant.

They had some nice details like including sheet music with lyrics to the toaster march in the box.

A guy I worked with won a nice chunk of change in a module contest where he made a module for the Mac that made it look like your system was booting into DOS, complete with a memory test (using the actual system memory size), then wandered your file system as if DOS commands were being typed and looking at directory contents, printing the date and time, and so on and so forth.

It took him 10 hours to write and won him a very substantial chunk of change.

He was also responsible for Strange Attractions, IIRC.
posted by plinth at 5:31 PM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I remember when I was six or seven, every time we got to go to the school library, we would spend most of the time transfixed to the flying toasters screensaver. The kids who saw-- or claimed to have seen-- toast popping out were regarded as most fortunate.
posted by threeants at 5:36 PM on May 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Here's a Flying Toasters clone for Mac (full) and Windows (limited).

Strike that. "Currently download links are not enabled by request of Vivendi." But if you dig through the archives, past pages have links to the downloads and source code, distributed under Creative Commons. The Windows link works from there! Huzzah!
posted by filthy light thief at 5:39 PM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I guess it is good timing for the post, since I have a AskMe up about the strangest screensaver that I (vaguely) remember. It was designed to promote the movie The Game, and to make you think you were going crazy by gradually changing things on your computer, sending emails in your name to the FBI, and so forth. Or maybe I am making it all up in my head.
posted by blahblahblah at 5:44 PM on May 4, 2013

Hey thanks for reminding me, I was overdue for an update of my favorite screen saver.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:48 PM on May 4, 2013

If you really want to talk about early screen savers, then you need to mention PLATO. The 1972-era PLATO IV gas-plasma panel terminals had this tendency to appear to burn in pixels if the "Press NEXT to begin" message sat for long periods of time at an unattended terminal. The solution? Display the message at random locations on the screen, rather than centered in the same spot. And at times they just gave up on showing anything, and you'd just sit down to a terminal with its black screen and an orange glow emanating from it.
posted by brianstorms at 5:57 PM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

It was designed to promote the movie The Game ...

posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:01 PM on May 4, 2013 [10 favorites]

plinth, I had that module (or one similar). It still kinda makes me giggle.
posted by infinitewindow at 6:03 PM on May 4, 2013

My first grown up job was in general admin. I acquitted grants. I had to look up what 'acquit' meant in the dictionary, because there was no training. It didn't help.

Until somebody learned I knew how to install pirated copies of After Dark Looney Tunes on all our 3.11 PCs. Then I was suddenly "in IT". I got to do the tape backups, then a full server restore. I got to order new PCs. I got a new 'multimedia' PC, with a caddy CD-ROM drive and a ludicrous amount of RAM (was it 64mb? I forget.) I was one of the chosen few with Internet e-mail, rather than internal e-mail.

Eventually, I got to go on expensive courses. Like, 'take six months off and go do your MCSE+I on us' courses. I ate a lot of free lunches at First Floor in Kingston, because somehow knowing how to plug in an ethernet cable made you some kind of demi-god above mere sandwiches.

So thanks, Rabbitron.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:15 PM on May 4, 2013 [9 favorites]

My favorite classic screensaver is the fish tank one from the Mac screensaver Pyro!. It's probably as old or older than After Dark, but it had one key feature that After Dark missed: if a larger fish encountered a smaller fish, the smaller fish would get eaten.

This screensaver is my current favorite. When I'm away, my cube looks like the cockpit of the Discovery One.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 6:23 PM on May 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

The greatest screensaver ever is JOHNNY CASTAWAY, it's this guy who's stuck on an island and he does all sorts of stuff. Eventually he escapes the island, and he's stuck in this boring office job dreaming of the island. Then you see him parachuting out of a plane and landing back on the island and jumping for joy.
posted by pravit at 6:40 PM on May 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

As I recall, many of the first PC/MS-DOS screen savers were manually executed, or could be launched with hot keys. It didn't take long for timer based "set and forget" "terminate and stay resident" (TSR*) applications to emerge, and there was no real dividing line between "programs that purport to be screen savers" and "programs that do cool graphical shit but are simply referred to by their authors as" demos" or may simply be named "Cool thing X" like "plasma.exe" or "" Oh wait: the dividing line was "screen savers terminate when you touch any key, whereas others might require ESC or CTRL-C (cancel, not copy!) or at worst CTRL-BREAK or the three finger salute.

Shout out to EXPLOSIV for being my first. It was manually launched as I recall and would load so fast that it often ended immediately while responding to the release of the ENTER key pressed when launching it from DOS.

* like modern multitasking basically, but with insanely less memory to work with, so you have to fart around and have different boot configurations for your PC for the type of task you might be performing. Anyone remember" Stupid PC Pranks/Tricks?" How about Kris Jasma?
posted by lordaych at 6:43 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

My best friend in elementary school had the After Dark games. We played them a lot. I remember there was a flying toaster in one, but I wasn't familiar with the screensaver, so I really never knew, until much later, why we were playing a flying toaster themed game. We just were.
posted by NoraReed at 6:55 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would so love to see boris the kitty cat chasing butterflies in his meadow again. Someone's got to have captured that or reproduced it some time. It was so sweet.
posted by alms at 7:01 PM on May 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Here's a story of Boris the Cat, with a screenshot of the mythical toast popping out of a toaster, but no Boris. Here's a weird trial for OS X, in which you can preview Mowing Man and Boris the Cat, but it costs $4 to actually use them as screen savers. Those two were combined in After Dark: Totally Twisted, as Mowing Boris. There's an old After Dark 'Saver blog, which describes Boris the Cat and the Mowing Man mash-up. The blog links files and images from a dead site, and at the moment, the view of the site is down.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:26 PM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Can I get some love for the Novell utilization snake? Text-mode, got longer the busier your CPU was. The nascent versions of Novell were in the early 80s, so could it even be the first graphical screensaver? It certainly would have predated Windows.

Not only that, it was actually a screen saver, in that it its purpose was to not let the screen burn in.

This is an HP DL380 G-something with dual, multicore hyperthreading processors running Netware 5. Good times.

(there was more to it than just length. the speed of how fast it moved around meant something too- disk queue backlog maybe? but I forget what. i think if you ran a webserver or groupwise, they got their own worms too. )
posted by gjc at 7:26 PM on May 4, 2013

Born in the 70's...

An 8-bit Boy of the eighties...

You're GODDAMNED right I had all the After Dark series in the 90's. I have been and always will be a nerd... After all.

These days I am partial to Lockward on all my *nix boxen.
posted by PROD_TPSL at 7:34 PM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I loved After Dark so much. My favorite (and luckily my wife's as well because we had just the one computer between us) screensaver was Satori*, although the fractal-zooming one was a close second. When I was in grad school I installed my copy of After Dark on the laboratory Mac and set it to Satori. One afternoon I came into the lab only to find the lights dimmed and everyone gathered around the computer, mesmerized by the shifting colors.

* Satori is shown briefly at about 1:50 in the 281 modules video. Here are some desktops someone made from Satori screenshots in case you forgot/don't know what it looks like, and holy crap there is a Satori clone for OSX.
posted by gamera at 8:14 PM on May 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

My favourite module was always Confetti Factory, where confetti slowly falls from the sky onto platforms and conveyor belts, piling up until it overflowed onto further platforms below. Every few minutes there would be a "lunch break" and the ducks(?) who presumably worked at the factory would march across the screen, and then the confetti would start over again.

I remember getting so annoyed that I never got to see the confetti really pile up and overflow, because of those pesky ducks with their ten-minute-long work days—they must have the best union negotiators ever. Eventually I made a similar little demo in JavaScript (which can be found on my github if anyone cares), but somehow it just doesn't feel quite right. Ah, nostalgia!
posted by vasi at 9:02 PM on May 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Heh. I worked with Jack Eastman and Igor Gasowski at the "obligatory Internet start-up" he mentions that he co-founded after After Dark. ("After After Dark" sounds like a naughty nightclub.)

Igor had a great Victrola that he bought at the Paris flea market that he brought to an office party once. Igor was adorable.

Jack wore sandals. Every. Fucking. Day. No matter the weather. Toenails, Jack. We don't need to see them.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 10:01 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can’t help it, I love screensavers. I never did care for Flying Toasters though.

I've been using BOINC for years now.

I was just thinking about SETI@home yesterday, having forgotten about it for years, and wondered if that kind of thing was still going on. I used to use it all the time. I would swear that I quit not long after I switched to Mac in ’97, but Wikipedia says it wasn’t released until ’99.
posted by bongo_x at 10:19 PM on May 4, 2013

In my adolescence and teen years I was anti-Mac for the most part (though I liked the Apple //e in middle school) and remember sneering at the flying toasters for being some absurdist hipster apple-y thing unlike fake fireworks or trippy moving color patterns / fractals. Of course After Dark is not Apple, but I did not have time for such trivial nuance exploration.

I did use the Mac classics in high school to write stories in ClarisWorks (if I recall correctly they couldn't keep up with my typing so I had to look away while typing or poke smot first) and made a joke zine or two using some publishing software, and didn't actively hate Apple ever since. Now I collect the stickers that come with iOS devices just in case I need to annoy somebody with one (by putting it on my own property or cube divider or whatever) because I'm still 13 and while I run Windows 7 quite a bit on my MBP, you can take it and OSX from me but you're going to have to give me $5,000 first so I can buy some more of them. Or the cold dead hands thing.
posted by lordaych at 12:07 AM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

The first days of the screensaver

There actually were screensavers for MS-DOS. Most of them looked like the simple graphic demos you'd find at computer shows and in shop windows, but they existed (ran in himem, pre-empted most but not all software, ymmv, etc.). Some of the comprehensive utilities, maybe Sidekick, came with one integrated, and some software came with its own built-in (best not to run two at once). They were generally pretty dull compared to flying toasters, of course, but "first days" is definitely a misnomer.
posted by dhartung at 12:10 AM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I touched on that above, and hey, I guess EXPLOSIV did have TSR mode, I just couldn't remember due to its most entertaining quirk. I launched it manually all of the time and it was like a game to hit the ENTER key deftly enough to keep the program from terminating prematurely (on a 286/12 AT, XT sux rox boyeeeee).
posted by lordaych at 12:17 AM on May 5, 2013

ACIDWARP was the go-to-king of the DOS screen savers IMHO. The demo scene was amazing too and I learned some of the easier techniques and implemented a bunch of them as pseudo-screensavers, usually in angst-teen-boy-blue color palettes, courtesy of the hardware addresses 0x3c8 and 0x3c9. Never got any good at 3D stuff or elaborate curves, it was like I didn't hit the gym enough and couldn't bench 80% of my body weight bro
posted by lordaych at 12:23 AM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

incster: "No discussion of screensavers is complete without reference to Jamie Zawinski's xscreensaver."

Thanks for reminding me to reinstall it after my recent upgrade...
posted by Samizdata at 1:47 AM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Those Flying Toasters were Very Entertaining. Mr. Roquette has all the After Dark stuff. I like the crowd one and I love Rock, Paper, Scissors!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 2:45 AM on May 5, 2013

Did metafilter just make me spend 10 minutes of my life watching videos of old screensavers?!?!

Not that I'm complaining necessarily, but boy did that make me feel a) nerdy and b) old.
posted by pianissimo at 5:19 AM on May 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

ACIDWARP was the go-to-king of the DOS screen savers IMHO.

I remember AcidWarp, but I don't remember it being a screensaver - you loaded it, looked at it, then hit a certain key to quit. I remember in the TXT file that came with it, there were instructions for building this insane projection device that mounted over the monitor to project the trippiness on your wall.
posted by DecemberBoy at 5:32 AM on May 5, 2013

"You want to come over, get high, and watch screensavers?"
-the best date invite I ever got, circa 1998
posted by dirtdirt at 5:52 AM on May 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Man, just the concept of premium screen-savers makes me feel old. It's like when department stores had a huge "phone" section with all the $50+ home phones, like the Lego one or big statues of a cartoon character holding the handset.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 10:25 AM on May 5, 2013

The fact that the money from After Dark became is one of the weirdest "remember them?" moments.

I never knew that Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, the two founders of Berkeley Systems, started their efforts as "Censure and Move On," calling for Congress to move beyond the Monica Lewinsky drama in 1998. Thanks, Pope Guilty.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:44 PM on May 5, 2013

Has anyone gotten FLT's link to the working Boris screensaver to work? When I download it I get a zip file that I can't open on my Mac.
posted by alms at 6:37 PM on May 5, 2013

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