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Aug 15, 2020

The Oregon Trail is a 2100 plus mile wagon route that stretched from the Missouri River to settleable lands in Oregon. Along the way it cuts through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho as well. After parts were charted by Lewis and Clark from 1804 to 1806, it was begun by fur traders in 1811 but fin the 1830s Americans began to journey across the trail to settle the wild lands of the Pacific Northwest. And today, Interstates 80 and 84 follow parts of it. But the game is about the grueling journey that people made from 1824 and on, which saw streams of wagons flow over the route in the 1840s. And over the next hundred years it became a thing talked about in textbooks but difficult to relate to in a land of increasing abundance. 

So flash forward to 1971. America is a very different place than those wagonloads of humans would have encountered in Fort Boise or on the Boeman Trail, both of which now have large cities named after them. Instead, in 1971, NPR produced their first broadcast. Amtrak was created in the US. Greenpeace was founded. Fred Smith created Federal Express. A Clockwork Orange was released. And Don Rawitch wrote The Oregon Trail while he was a senior at Carleton College to help teach an 8th grade history class in Northfield, Minnesota. 

It’s hard to imagine these days, but this game was cutting edge at the time. Another event in 1971: the Intel 4004 microprocessor comes along, which will change everything in computing in just 10 short years. In 1971, when Apollo 14 landed on the moon, the computer was made of hand-crafted coils and chips and a 10 key pad was used to punch in code. When Ray Tomlinson invented email that year, computers weren’t interactive. When IBM invented the floppy disk that year, no one would have guessed they would some day be used to give school children dissentary all across the world.

When he first wrote OREGON, as the game was originally known, Don was using a time shared HP 2100 minicomputer at Pillsbury (yes, the Pillsbury of doughboy fame who makes those lovely, flaky biscuits). THE HP WAS running Time-Share BASIC and Don roped in his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann to help out. Back then, the computer wrote output to teletype and took data in using tape terminals. But the kids loved it. They would take a wagon from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon - making a grueling journey in a covered wagon in 1848. And they might die of dissentary, starvation, mountain fever or any other ailment Rawitch could think of. 

Gaming on paper tape was awkward, but the kids were inspired. They learned about computers and the history of how the West was settled at the same time. When the class was over, Don printed the code for the game, probably not thinking much would happen with it after that.

But then he got hired by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, or MECC, in 1974. Back in the 60s and 70s, Minnesota was a huge hub of computing. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves had offices in the state, and early pioneers of mainframes like Honeywell, Unisys, ERA (and so Control Data Corporation and Cray from there), and IBM, all did a lot of work in the state. The state had funded MECC to build educational software for classrooms following the successes at TIES, or the Total Information for Educational Systems which had brought a time-sharing service on a HP 2000 along with training, and software (which they still do) to Minnesota schools. From there, the state created MECC to create software for schools. 

Don dug that code from 1971 back up and typed it back into the time sharing computers at MECC. He tweaked it a little and made it available on the CDC Cyber 70 at MECC and before you knew it, thousands of people were playing his game. By 1978 he’d publish the source code in Creative Computing magazine as the Oregon Trail. And then JP O’Malley would modify the basic programming to run on an Apple II and the Apple Pugetsound Program Library Exchange would post the game on their user group. 

The Oregon Trail 2 would come along that year as well and by 1980, MECC would release it along with better graphics as a part of an Elementary Series of educational titles - but the graphics got better with a full release as a standalone game in 1985. Along the way it had gotten ported for the Atari in 1983 and the Commodore 64 in 1984. But the 1985 version is the one we played in my school.

We loved getting to play on the computers in school. The teachers seemed to mostly love getting a break as we were all silent while playing, until we lost one of our party - and then we’d laugh and squeal at the same time! We’d buy oxen, an extra yoke for our wagon, food, bullets, and then we’d set off on our journey to places many of us had never heard of. We’d get diseases, break limbs, get robbed, and watch early versions of cut scenes in 8-bit graphics. And along the way, we learned.  

We learned about a city called Independence, Missouri. And that life was very different in 1848. We learned about history. We learned about game mechanics. We started with $800. 

We learned about bartering and how carpenters were better at fixing wagon wheels than bankers were. We tried to keep our party alive and we learned that it’s a good idea to save a little money to ferry across rivers. We learned the rudimentariness of shooting in games, as we tried to kill a bear here and there. We learned that rabbits didn’t give us much meat. We learned to type BANG and WHAM fast so we could shoot animals and later we learned to aim with arrow keys and fire with a space bar. The bison moved slow and gave more meat than the 100 pounds you could carry back to your wagon. So we shot them. We learned carpenters could fix wheels and to conserve enough money to ferry your wagon so you didn’t sink or have one of your party drown. 

We learned that you got double the points for playing the carpenter and triple for playing the farmer. We wanted to keep our family alive not only because we got to name them (often making fun of our friends in class) but also because they gave us more points. As did the possessions we were able to keep. 

By 1990 with a changing tide, the game came to DOS and by 1991 it was ported to the Mac. Mouse support was added in 1992 and it came to Windows 3 in 1993. Softkey released The Oregon Trail: Classic Edition. And 

by 1995 The Oregon Trail made up a third of the MECC budget, raking in $30 million per year, and helped fund other titles. Oregon Trail II came in 95, 3 in 97, 4 in 99, and 5 made it into the new millennia in 2001. All being released for Windows and Mac. And 10 years later it would come to the modern era of console gaming, making it to the Wii and 3DS. 

And you can learn all of what we learned by playing the game on ( ). The Internet Archive page shows the 1990 version that was ported and made available for the Apple II, Macintosh, Windows, and DOS. The Internet Archive page alone has had nearly 7.2 million views. But the game has sold over 65 million copies as well. 

The Oregon Trail is beloved by many. I see shirts with You Have Died of DIssentary and card versions of the game in stores. I’ve played in Facebook games and mobile versions. It’s even been turned into plays and parodied in TV shows. That wagon is one of the better known symbols of all time in gaming lore. And we still use many of the game mechanics introduced then, in games from Dragon Warrior to the trading and inventory system inspiring the World of Warcraft. 

We can thank The Oregon Trail for giving our teachers a beak from teaching us in school and giving us a break from learning. Although I suspect we learned plenty. And we can thank MECC for continuing the fine tradition of computer science in Minnesota. And we can thank Don for inspiring millions, many of which went on to create their own games.

And thank you, listener, for tuning in to this episode of The History of Computing Podcast. We are so so so lucky to have you. Have a great day! And keep in mind, a steady pace will get you to the end of the trail before the snows come in, with plenty of time to take ferries across the rivers. Rest when you need it. And no, you probably aren’t likely to beat my high score.