Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail

MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

Ad Astra: The Time Earth Almost Got a Space Billboard

iStock
iStock

In the 1980s and well into the 1990s, everything associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger was big. Big biceps (22 inches during his bodybuilding heyday). Big box office (1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day made $520 million worldwide, the highest-grossing movie of that year). So it was no surprise to open a newspaper in 1993 and see that Columbia Pictures was spending $500,000 to plaster the actor's name and the title of his pending summer blockbuster, Last Action Hero, on the fuselage of a NASA rocket set for launch that June. Schwarzenegger himself was scheduled to push the button that would propel the spacecraft into orbit.

The NASA project deal was being brokered for commercial advertising purposes by Space Marketing Inc., an Atlanta-based firm specializing in sponsorships and ads located outside of the atmosphere. The company's CEO, Mike Lawson, told the Los Angeles Times that he could've sold "dozens" of ads for the rocket, but that he and NASA officials didn't want it to "look like a pace car at the Indy 500."

The idea of promoting a movie in space was brazen, but not nearly as much as another, more ambitious project that Lawson was planning. If everything went according to plan, his Space Marketing would shoot a payload into space in time for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Once it was in orbit, mylar tubes would inflate with gas and spring open to support a mile-wide, quarter-mile tall reflective sheet that would be visible from Earth. Lawson called it an "inflatable platform," but the press—and critics—quickly labeled it something else: a space billboard.

If Lawson had his way, it would be able to make everything from the Olympic rings to the McDonald's logo as visible to Earthbound consumers as a full moon.

 

In Robert Heinlein's 1950 novella The Man Who Sold the Moon, a lunar entrepreneur hustles to sell advertising space on the moon as part of his attempt to make colonization a profitable venture. Lawson—a onetime director of marketing for his father's publishing company in Atlanta and a fan of science fiction—read the story. In 1988, he founded Space Marketing as a way to defictionalize the concept.

As fantastic as it sounded, the idea wasn't without precedent. In 1981, telecommunications mogul Robert Lorsch made a presentation to Congress that outlined a strategy for allowing corporations to "sponsor" space travel by letting them buy plaques that would go onboard spacecraft. In the same way they endorsed the Olympics, Lorsch said, corporate America could help subsidize space travel.

A McDonald's logo is visible from space
iStock Collage

The plan was a response to then-president Ronald Reagan's plea to have the private sector assist in helping the government overcome their financial burdens. While Lorsch's proposal was prescient—it anticipated the rise of privatized space exploration—the idea of having commercial sponsors for NASA didn't make it through the Byzantine maze of Washington bureaucracy.

Lawson thought the idea could be taken further, and not necessarily with the cooperation of government. Partnering with scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Library and the University of Colorado, Lawson developed a plan to allow instruments developed by these institutions to go into orbit and collect information about the ozone layer. To underwrite the project, he would solicit commercial advertisers for the mile-long mylar sheet that would exit the atmosphere rolled up and then expand to full size once it reached orbit. The aluminized lettering would reflect the sun's rays, making whatever graphic it displayed visible for 10 minutes at a time at any given point on Earth. After roughly 20 days, it would disintegrate, leaving the sensors behind to continue collecting data for researchers.

'We could actually fly [the] Golden Arches in space," Lawson said in May 1993, referring to the ubiquitous McDonald's logo. With an estimated launch cost of $15 to $30 million, companies buying ads would cover expenses as well as contribute to a profit for Space Marketing—perhaps paying as much as $1 million for every day it was visible.

A few months later, the city of Atlanta began investigating Space Marketing's concept as a possible advertising vessel for the 1996 Olympics. "Special" glasses given away at point-of-purchase displays with cooperating sponsors would allow people to see the Olympic rings in orbit.

That last point appeared to be a concession to a growing chorus of concern over the idea of using space as a commercial entity. While proponents of the idea argued it was similar to blimps sailing overhead and displaying corporate propaganda messages, a coalition of scientists argued otherwise. Carl Sagan called it an "abomination," insisting that astronomy could soon become a practice of exploring the stars wedged between mile-wide ads for fast food and automobiles.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader led a group calling for an orbital billboard ban, labeling it a practice of "defacing the heavens." Other groups decried it as commercial pollution of space and vowed to boycott any companies involved. Supporters of Nader's Public Interest Research Group picketed Space Marketing's Atlanta headquarters.

Lawson tried to parry the attacks in media, saying that the phrase "space billboard" was the source of the controversy. He preferred the term "environmental billboard" and said that the whole objective was to have a global company foot the bill for scientific research.

 

Conceptually, the idea of a floating Arby's logo the perceived size of the moon was too dystopian for lawmakers to handle. In 1993, Congress submitted legislation that would prohibit the Transportation Department from issuing a launch license to any company prepared to shoot a corporate image into space. (The bill was eventually signed into law by Bill Clinton in 2000.)

None of this publicity was particularly helpful to Space Marketing, which saw its Olympic plans wilt in the face of both legislative opposition and the probability of massive pushback from space advocacy groups. They turned their attention to Russia, which had no ethical objections to space endorsements, and facilitated a 1999 project that saw Pizza Hut attach its logo to the Proton rocket that carried supplies to the International Space Station. (The chain previously considered projecting its logo with lasers on the surface of the moon but abandoned the idea when they realized it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.)

A rocket is propelled into space
iStock

Space Marketing's investors moved on to the blimp industry and the firm was dissolved by 2007, when Lawson became CEO of airship manufacturer Techsphere Systems. As for the Last Action Hero stunt: It dissolved when Columbia learned Lorsch was threatening legal action, claiming he owned a copyright on the idea of commercial space advertising. The movie itself also failed to launch, becoming a notorious summer bomb when it was pitted against Jurassic Park.

While space has largely been off-limits to such "obtrusive" advertising by law, not everyone agrees that's for the best. Earlier this month, it was reported that NASA is looking into selling off the naming right to its shuttles as a way to recoup some of the organization's costs. When Lorsch testified before a Senate subcommittee in 2004 to review his 1981 proposal, he said that his sponsorship program might have earned NASA $5 billion in revenue if it had been implemented.

Antisocial Media: The Rise and Fall of Friendster

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iStock

When software engineer Jonathan Abrams arrived in Silicon Valley in 1996, the internet was known for three things: vast amounts of information, pornography, and anonymity. If users weren't investigating the first two, they were exploiting the third to argue about movies or politics, their unfiltered opinions unencumbered by concerns over embarrassment. People were known only by their screen handles.

Abrams, who came to California to program for the web browser Netscape, had an idea. What if people could use their real names, faces, and locations online? Instead of having an avatar, they'd simply upload their existing personality in the form of photos, profiles, and interests. They could socialize with others in a transparent fashion, mingling within their existing circles to find new friends or even dates. Strangers would be introduced through a mutual contact. If executed properly, the network would have real-world implications on relationships, something the internet rarely facilitated at that time.

Abrams called his concept Friendster. Launched in March 2003, it quickly grew to host millions of users. Google began talks of a lucrative buyout. Abrams showed up on Jimmy Kimmel Live, anticipating the dot-com-engineer-as-rock-star template. His investors believed Friendster could generate billions.

Instead, Friendster's momentum stalled. Myspace became the dominant social platform, with Facebook quickly gaining ground. Abrams, who once appeared poised to collect a fortune from his creation, watched as copycat sites poached his user base and his influence waned. What should've been a case study of internet success became one of the highest profile casualties of the web's unrestricted growth. It became too big not to fail.

 

Many businesses rely on a creation myth, the idea that a single inciting incident provides the spark of inspiration that turns a company from a small concern into a revenue-generating powerhouse. For publicity purposes, these stories are just that—fictions devised to excite the press and charm consumers. Pierre Omidyar, who programmed AuctionWeb and later renamed it eBay, was said to have conceived of the project to help his wife, Pamela, find Pez dispensers for her collection. In fact, there were no Pez dispensers. It was a fable concocted by an eBay marketing employee who wanted to romanticize the site's origins.

In early press coverage of Friendster, there was little mention of Abrams looking to monetize the burgeoning opportunities available online. Instead, he was portrayed as a single man with a recently broken heart who wanted to make dating easier. Abrams later said there was no truth to this origin story, though he did derive inspiration from Match.com, a successful dating site launched in 1995. Abrams's idea was to develop something like Match.com, only with the ability to meet people through friends. Instead of messaging someone out of the blue, you could connect via a social referral.

Human-shaped icons represent the concept of social networking
iStock

Following stints at Netscape and an aggregation site called HotLinks, Abrams wrote and developed Friendster for a spring 2003 launch. He sent invites to 20 friends and family members in the hopes interest would multiply. It did, and quickly. By June, Friendster had 835,000 users. By fall, there were 3 million. Facebook's launch in February 2004 was months away, and so low-key that Abrams met with Mark Zuckerberg to see if he'd consider selling. If an internet user wanted to socialize in a transparent manner, Friendster was the go-to destination.

When users signed up for the site, they were only allowed to message people who were within six degrees of separation or less. To help endorse unfamiliar faces, Friendster also permitted users to leave "testimonials" on profiles that could extol a person's virtues and possibly persuade a connection to meet up in the real world.

Naturally, not all mutual connections were necessarily good friends: They might have been acquaintances at best, and the resulting casual atmosphere was more of a precursor to Tinder than Facebook. One user told New York Magazine that Friendster was less a singles mixer and more "six degrees of how I got Chlamydia."

Still, it worked. The site's immediate success did not go unnoticed by venture capitalists, who had been circling popular platforms—America Online, Yahoo!, and, later, YouTube—and injecting start-ups with millions in operating funds. At the time, the promise of savvy business minds flipping URLs for hundreds of millions or even billions was a tangible concept, and one that Abrams kept in mind as he fielded an offer from Google in 2003 to buy Friendster for $30 million. It would be a windfall.

Abrams declined.

 

Investors—including future PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Google investor K. Ram Shriram—advised Abrams that there was too much money to leave on the table in return for short-term gain. Abrams opted to accept $13 million toward building out the site. He sat on the board of directors and watched as backers began to strategize the best path forward.

Quickly, Abrams noticed a paradigm shift taking place. As a programmer, Abrams solved problems, and Friendster was facing a big one. Buoyed by press attention (including the Kimmel appearance where Abrams handed out condoms to audience members, presumably in anticipation of all the relationships Friendster could help facilitate), the site was slowing down, unable to absorb all of the incoming traffic. Servers struggled to generate customized networks for each user, all of which were dependent on who they were already connected to. A page sometimes took 40 seconds to load.

The investors considered lag time a mundane concern. Adding new features was even less attractive, as that might slow the pages down further. They wanted to focus on partnerships and on positioning Friendster as a behemoth that could attract a nine- or 10-figure purchase price. This is what venture capitalists did, scooping up 10 or 20 opportunities and hoping a handful might explode into something enormous.

But for business owners and entrepreneurs like Abrams, they didn’t have a portfolio to deal with. They were concerned only with their creation. Its failure was all-encompassing; there weren't 19 other venues to turn to if things didn't work out.

Two word balloons represent the concept of social networking
iStock

Abrams saw the need for a site reconfiguration. The board was indifferent. Eventually he was removed and assigned a role as chairman, an empty title that was taken away from him in 2005. As the board squabbled over macro issues, Abrams watched as micro issues—specifically, the site itself—deteriorated. Frustrated with wait times, users began migrating to Myspace, which offered more customizable features and let voyeurs browse profiles without "friending" others. Myspace attracted 22.1 million unique users monthly in 2005. Friendster was getting just 1.1 million.

 

By 2006, Friendster was mired in software kinks and something less tangible: a loss of cachet among users who were gravitating toward other social platforms. Though Abrams was out, investors continued to pour money into Friendster in the hopes that they could recoup costs. In 2009, they sold to MOL Global for $40 million, which would later convert the site into a social gaming destination. But it was too late. Though the site still had an immense number of users—115 million, with 75 million coming from Asia—they were passive, barely interacting with other users. By 2011, user data—photos, profiles, messages—was being purged.

In ignoring the quality of the end-user experience, the decision-makers at Friendster had effectively buried the promise of Abrams's concept. They sold off his patents to Facebook in 2010 for $40 million. Coupled with the MOL sale, it may have been a tidy sum, but one that paled in comparison to Friendster's potential. A 2006 article in The New York Times reported with some degree of morbid fascination that if Abrams had accepted the Google offer of $30 million in 2003 in the form of stock, it would've quickly been worth $1 billion.

In the years since, Abrams has tinkered with other sites—including an evite platform called Socialzr and a news monitoring app called Nuzzel, which is still in operation—and tends to Founders Den, a club and work space in San Francisco. He's normally reticent to discuss Friendster, believing there's little point in dwelling on a missed opportunity.

The site did, ultimately, became a case study for Harvard Business School—though perhaps not in the way investors had intended. Friendster was taught as a cautionary tale, an example that not every good idea will find its way to success.

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