Mowin Man, 1991 © After Dark

This story was originally published in 2019 in the “Distraction” issue of Eye on Design magazine.

 

In 1983, a computer programmer named John Socha created what is considered by most to be the first screensaver. The program, called SCRNSAVE, was barely a program at all—after three minutes of inactivity, it turned the screen into a blank, black square.

At the time, Socha developed SCRNSAVE for a mostly utilitarian purpose. He was the creator of Norton Commander, a file management program that gave computer users a way to interact with their files on early disk operating systems more easily. In the 1980s, some of the high-contrast computer screens that Norton Commander ran on were susceptible to “burn-in,” a phenomenon where overuse of certain pixels could leave a ghost-like imprint on the screen. The original purpose of SCRNSAVE was exactly as valiant as its name suggests—its darkened image saved screens from permanent damage.

When Socha first wrote the program, he couldn’t have known that his algorithmic experiment would create an entirely new genre of graphics software built primarily for pure entertainment. Soon, other software engineers would follow his lead and go on to develop some of the most iconic visuals associated with early computing.

In the mid-1980s, computers were technical marvels that could, in reality, do very little unless you were fluent in programming languages. Word processing was in its infancy. The internet was still a crude idea. Apple’s MacPaint, released with the first Mac personal computer in early 1984, was the zenith of computational creativity, but it was still a relatively simple program. “Anything you did on a computer at the time was a drudge,” says Bill Stewart, a UX designer who came up during the period. “Software was still really hard to use.”

Stewart, now a senior UX design strategist at UX Factor Design, is the creator of an early screensaver called Magic that twisted simple vector lines into perception-bending patterns. He later helped develop screensavers for After Dark, the most well-known screensaver software program of the early Mac and Windows era. In the late ’80s, engineers and designers like Stewart, Jack Eastman, and Patrick Beard (After Dark’s co-founders), were exploring what the computer was capable of outside of hard-nosed programming environments. The graphical user interface was still relatively young, and it proved to be a playground for anyone interested in experimenting with animation algorithms.

It made sense then that most early screensaver developers were computer science majors looking for a creative outlet. “It was a personal project,” Eastman recalled in a 2007 interview with the website Low End Mac. Eastman first began experimenting with designing graphical screensavers while he was getting his Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley. Similarly, Stewart was working on utilitarian software when he discovered that there was a way to turn his line charts into art.

While designing the interface for a piece of accounting software, Stewart and his business partner Ian MacDonald began playing with animated line charts. He quickly realized that while basic, the animations were an unexpectedly whimsical break from the stagnant screen. He decided to code animations as a standalone program, experimenting with arranging the lines into geometric patterns. He called it Magic. “The line art was simple,” he recalls, “But the algorithm had some life to it.”

“Screensavers are clearly kind of useless, in the way art is meant to be useless. There’s something slightly naive about them.”

Screensavers like Magic, and later the graphics from After Dark, were designed to be playfully entrancing. Stewart says the mark of a good animation is something that keeps your attention—but just for a moment. “We wanted to make it interesting, but not something you’d want to sit down and watch for hours,” he says. After Dark in particular was able to hone its breed of wacky graphics into a brand with screensavers that included winged toasters flying across the screen and psychedelic kaleidoscope patterns filling the black square.

For many people, the animations filled a strange but satisfying role—screensavers were only visible once people stopped using their computer. “It was the way your computer behaved when it was doing nothing,” says David Reinfurt, a designer who runs the software studio o-r-g where he makes and sells artistically rendered screensavers for $25.

Throughout the 1990s, screensavers boomed in popularity as more people bought personal computers for the first time. Screensavers came default on most PCs; they’d flicker on after a few minutes without any prompting, filling the screen with snaking pipes, labyrinths of bricks, and 3D block letters bouncing around a black background. None of the animations were art, per se, but the images were iconic in their own kitschy way. By the end of the decade, screensavers were no longer as technically necessary as they once were thanks to the low-contrast LCD screens that were becoming more common. Still, they persisted for a while as emblems of unadulterated fun on machines that were quickly becoming more ingrained in people’s everyday lives.

In their heyday, screensavers were a diversion, a simple distraction that served no real purpose beyond bringing the screen to life. By today’s standards, the graphics are no longer remarkable; their novelty has been absorbed by the explosion of visual culture that we’re surrounded by daily. Today, a blank screen feels radical, which might explain why screensavers have almost disappeared from our screens altogether. Still, it’s that sheer lack of utility that has given them such a powerful place in the collective nostalgia around early computing. “Software is always judged by what it can do for you,” Reinfurt says. “Screensavers are clearly kind of useless, in the way art is meant to be useless. There’s something slightly naive about them.”