On the Trail of the Oregon Trail, Part 4

21 Apr

It’s been a while since I’ve written on this subject. That hasn’t been because I’ve lost interest; rather the contrary actually. I’ve been doing some digital archeology with my new friends Michael Gemeny and Bob Brown of the HP 2000 Yahoo Group, and we’ve been able to turn up something very cool indeed.

On an old tape image from school district of York County, Pennsylvania, Michael found a program with the very promising name of “Oregon.” Sure enough, when we loaded it onto the system we found a version of The Oregon Trail dated March 27, 1975, more than three years older than the earliest previously known version. I’ve uploaded the program listing to this site, if you’d like to have a look. Looking at said listing has already proven to be very interesting for us.

First of all, it appears that the little history lesson I gave in part 3 of this series was not entirely correct. When Rawitsch came to MECC in 1974, he evidently did not port the game — or at least not immediately — to run on MECC’s centralized UNIVAC mainframe. He rather typed it out once again on another HP-2100 system. That makes a great deal of sense when one considers that these little systems were quite common in Minnesota schools and, indeed, in schools all over the country. By early 1975 MECC was obviously already giving the program away to school districts in other states.

It’s also evident that Rawitsch, or MECC, or at any rate someone, continued to improve and refine the game for years before it made its way to the Apple II. The 1978 version found in Creative Computing has some features not present in the 1975 version. In both versions, the player must enter a word quickly into the terminal and certain points: when hunting, when attacked by bandits, etc. The 1978 version, however, has a difficulty setting; when the program starts, the player is asked how good a shot she is, from “ace marksman” through to “shaky knees.” This determines how much time the player is given to type the word. And unlike in the 1975 version, in 1978 that word is chosen randomly from four possibilities — “BANG,” “BLAM,” “POW,” and “WHAM” to be specific. In 1975 it’s just good old “BANG” all the time. For those interested in looking at the differences, you can also download the 1978 version. This one isn’t quite as authentic as the 1975 one. I spent quite a lot of time fixing problems in the code that resulted from the OCR, and in the process also ported it back to HP-BASIC from CDC Cyber BASIC. I believe the problems have all been sorted out, however, and it should look and play just as it would have on an HP system back in 1978.

So, if we take the liberty of call these major version numbers 2 and 3, it sure would be nice to have version 1, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, that doesn’t look likely to happen. Since this version apparently never made it beyond the system on which Rawitsch, Heinemann, and Dillenberger wrote it, and since Rawitsch deleted it off of that system in 1972, the only hope seemed to lie with that famous yellowing printout Rawitsch carried over to MECC. This picture from an Oregon Trail anniversary event at the Mall of America gave us hope, as Rawitsch is holding something that looks suspiciously like exactly what we were seeking.

I was able to contact Rawitsch about that, but the news was disappointing: he no longer has the printout. Barring a miraculous find, it appears that the 1975 version is the best we’re likely to do. Still, that’s a heck of a lot better than 1978. I feel lucky indeed to have found it.

Looking at the code of the 1975 version does tell some very interesting stories in itself. Michael knows much more about HP BASIC than I do, so I’m going to quote him here:

“The line numbers of this code tell an important part of the story which matches the historical accounts. From the looks of it, I would have said that it was being maintained by an accomplished programmer with a sense of pride and dedication. Then it seems to have been maintained by a less experienced programmer, or a programmer lacking the sense of pride, or the time, or perhaps the skill to maintain the appearance of the code.”

This latter programmer would of course be Rawitsch, who re-keyed and modified the program at MECC, initially at least on his own, and who, unlike Heinemann and Dillenberger, was not a trained programmer.

While most of the program is numbered in steps of 5, this pattern is occasionally broken. This is somewhat odd, as Michael informs me that HP-BASIC has a very powerful renumbering facility that Rawitsch perhaps didn’t know to take advantage of. Michael has assembled a list of lines which break the numbering pattern, and which therefore probably indicate places where Rawitsch made changes or additions at MECC. At the risk of belaboring the point, I’ll just paste that in here for the passionately interested.

Line 8- 11 Added MECC name, maintainer, and version
Line 262-263 Caution user against using a dollar sign
Line xx99 added section names in remarks
Line 1332 require user answer to be an integer
Line 1537 added caution about spending
Line 1752 discovered that ‘7 was a bell, added note to that
Line 1902 made question two lines
Line 2392 fixed bug when riders don’t attack
Line 2672 added ammunition losses to heavy rains losses
Line 2792 added ammunition losses to fire losses
Line 2891 may have changed Indians to wolves and cause death
Line 3147 added ammunition losses to wagon damage
Line 3317 added ammunition losses to blizzard damage
Line 3650-3658 added next of kin and aunt Nellie
Line 4012 added another note about ‘7 bells
Line 4279 changed congratulatory message

Working from these clues and the historical record, it might be possible to reconstruct an “original” Oregon Trail. I’ve thought about it quite a lot, but I’m not really certain if it’s a good idea. The end result would inevitably be the product of a lot of conjecture. And, while we can learn much from the line numbers, we can’t know what modifications Rawitsch might have made within certain lines.

But perhaps you’d like to play this thing? If so, here’s how you can experience it in all its 1975 glory in HP Time-Shared BASIC.

1. Telnet to (Telnet, mind you. None of that newfangled SSH!)
2. Slowly alternate CTL-J and CTL-M until you see a “PLEASE LOG IN” message.
3. Enter “HEL-T001,HP2000,1″. Without the quotes, of course — and note that those are zeroes. Oh, and the system isn’t case-sensitive, but for the authentic experience you might want to have your caps lock on.
4. Enter “GET-OREGON” to load the 1975 version, “GET-ORE2″ to load the 1978 version.
5. “LIST” the program if you like, or just “RUN” it.

Bob Brown has graciously made this system available for all of us interested in this corner of computer history. Poke around as you like — there’s a lot of other interesting programs on there in addition to The Oregon Trail. But do please be polite and respectful if you decide to rummage.

As for our subject today… damned if the thing isn’t kind of fun. More on that when I wrap all of this up very soon now.


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16 Responses to On the Trail of the Oregon Trail, Part 4

  1. Felix Pleșoianu

    April 21, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    Your link to the program listing is bad. I get a 404.

    Fascinating story, though. Can’t wait to see how it ends. :)

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 22, 2011 at 6:45 am

      Hmm… I just checked it and it’s working for me. Perhaps try it from the blog site itself rather than the RSS feed.

      • Jason Dyer

        April 22, 2011 at 12:22 pm

        Doing that. Still 404ed.

        Also can’t get to the main Filfre site (with your interpreter).

        • Jimmy Maher

          April 22, 2011 at 12:39 pm

          Okay, sorry. I think I fixed it now.

          Today’s lesson: relative links in WordPress posts cause all kinds of problems.

  2. Jason Dyer

    April 21, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    I’m loving this series.

    I incidentally have interesting finds to report in relation to Wumpus, which I’m going to write about at some point in one of my Zork posts.

    What’s the date on CASTLE (from the telnet server)?

    • Jason Dyer

      April 21, 2011 at 8:05 pm

      Actually, while I’m at it, what’s the date on Wumpus? The Creative Computing article written in 1975 by Yob states it was made 2 years before, except everywhere it is given as 1972, not 1973.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 22, 2011 at 6:51 am

      I’m afraid your guess is as good as mine on the creation dates of these things. We got lucky with The Oregon Trail in that it had the date inside an REM statement at the beginning of the listing.

      I want to devote at least one post to Wumpus after I finish up with The Oregon Trail. I’ll dig some more at that point; perhaps I can come up with something. Looking forward to hearing what you’ve learned about it as well.

  3. Bob Brown

    May 4, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    I will try to get a date for castle (castle.b300). My friend wrote it…I think early 80’s sometime. (I am still in contact with the author).

  4. Frank Sapone

    February 19, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Hey, I love the series. But, I am wondering what school did the tape come from in York, PA? I live pretty close to York, PA and my father grew up there in the 70s.


    • Jimmy Maher

      February 19, 2012 at 8:15 pm

      This would have been a time-sharing machine, meaning it was likely installed in a central location — perhaps a district office or the like — and served the whole district, who would have connected via remote dumb terminals.

      • Frank Sapone

        February 20, 2012 at 1:28 am

        Do you have any more information on where it came from? I’d like to visit the actual school and see if they’d let me see the tape, and answer some questions of my own. I’m pretty surprised that York, PA would have the oldest remaining copy. Especially when PA doesn’t appear to be an area that was focused on technology.

        • Jimmy Maher

          February 20, 2012 at 4:29 pm

          It was actually the folks from the HP2000 Yahoo group ( that dug up the tape image for me. Best thing to do would be to inquire there. They’re all very kind and helpful folks.

  5. Kari Kraus

    February 21, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    What’s fascinating to me–I mentioned this on Twitter the other day–is that the 1975 and 1978 versions of the source code don’t include dysentery as a potential cause of death. The game’s most iconic phrase was a later addition to the game and not part of the original experience!

    Interestingly, I’ve never seen this mentioned before, by Rawitsch or anyone else.

  6. Kari Kraus

    February 21, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    P. S. Awesome work recovering the source code!

  7. Don Alsafi

    November 22, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    Oh dang! Seems no longer exists?

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 23, 2014 at 11:24 am

      The URL was just changed. I’ve updated the post with the new one. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!


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