On the Trail of the Oregon Trail, Part 2

28 Mar

I mentioned last time around that the original Oregon Trail was written on an HP-2100 series minicomputer. That’s a pretty interesting topic in itself.

HP’s first computer line, the 2100 series could be equipped with a number of possible operating systems. One of the most common, and the one under which The Oregon Trail was written, was called HP Time-Shared BASIC. This system was unique in its time, and perhaps even visionary. Rather than placing the user in the command-line driven environment typical of virtually all other OSs of the period, Time-Shared BASIC, true to its name, dropped the user after login into an interactive BASIC environment. Not only could she write programs here using BASIC, but all of her other immediate interactions with the system — loading and saving files, etc. — were also done using BASIC statements.

This was the design concept later used by many of the 8-bit generation of personal computers, as anyone who ever typed “LOAD ‘*’,8,1” to start a game on a Commodore 64 can attest. Following the norms of the time, even the original IBM PC dumped the user into a little used and seldom remembered BASIC environment if it didn’t find a DOS disk to boot at power-on. I’d been curious for years how we got from the command-line driven environments typical of most institutional computing to the interactive BASICs of these machines; now I think I have an idea.

Time-Shared BASIC represented a more welcoming environment for working and programming than was typical of the time, and this fact combined with the relatively low cost and easy maintainability of the HP-2100 line made these machines favorites of universities and even high schools. HP seems to have put considerable effort into designing and marketing the HP-2100 as a more user-friendly, accessible sort of machine. This manual is particularly interesting, being an introduction to BASIC programming pitched to the complete novice. It’s actually really well done, managing to walk the fine line of being friendly and accessible without falling into condescension. In light of all this, then, it’s not at all surprising that an HP-2100 would have found its way to Carleton College.

There were quite a lot of games and educational programs written in Time-Shared BASIC, and some of these have ended up on the Internet in the form of an unorganized dump to a huge tape image. So, I decided to try to bring up an emulated version of Time-Shared BASIC on my computer and to look through this mass to see if there might be a copy of the original The Oregon Trail in there somewhere. Well, it sounded like a good idea at the time, anyway…

You see, while there is an HP-2100 emulator available thanks to the amazing efforts of The Computer History Simulation Project, Time-Shared BASIC was a pretty complicated configuration. It was in fact TWO HP-2100s, one serving as a sort of gateway to users who connected via remote terminals and the other hosting the core of the OS itself. So, emulating the thing means running two separate HP-2100 emulators, loading the appropriate software onto each, and linking them together via sockets. Finally, one opens a THIRD window on one’s PC to telnet into the system via the loopback address. I never would have gotten anywhere close to a working setup if it hadn’t been for a Yahoo group dedicated to the platform, who host in their files section an emulator setup that almost worked right out of the box. I won’t bore you with the details of my struggles to get from almost to completely working; suffice to say that I finally got my own little Time-Shared BASIC system up and running.

And so I started going through the tape dump. This was almost 6MB of data, a large quantity indeed for a collection of BASIC programs often only a few kilobytes in length. Alas, though, no joy on The Oregon Trail.

But what I did find was pretty darn interesting, and more than justified the time it took to get to this point. Here were literally hundreds of BASIC programs: games, educational programs dealing with every subject, practical scientific and mathematical tools, etc. I even found what appears to be the original version of the old Star Trek game. There was obviously quite a thriving culture of program development and trading on this system from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. That’s perhaps not so remarkable in itself. What is, though, is that these programs were being written and used not by a priesthood of professionals as in the world of the IBM mainframe or a collection of focused hackers and researchers as in the world of the DEC PDP line, but rather by everyday students and educators. This gives their work a very different character. And if this sampling of their work is anything to go by, these people were very, very interested in games.

This mother lode deserves more attention, and I’m going to try to give it some and perhaps post a bit more about it in the future. (In particular, I want to see if I can find a version of the Hamurabi game Jason Dyer mentioned in a comment to the first post in this series.) But before I do that I’ll get back to The Oregon Trail proper next time around.


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14 Responses to On the Trail of the Oregon Trail, Part 2

  1. fairuse dutch

    July 1, 2017 at 12:09 am

    The first programming course Lab was HP-2100F 20MB disk for users. Eight terminals, one paper terminal/printer and the request form for Uppercase Band printer. Graphics Terminal vector graphic drawing — Tank game was allowed if slow day.

    The reason all this was in a 2 year county college is funny UMD College Park and – Federal money. The department head was more interested in finding kids to maintain the 2100F language emulators written BASIC; HP-Assember, FORTRAN (I forgot which preprocess). After passing BASIC, the next lab requires Assembler problem.

    The micro-computer showed up. Blue/White front panel with switches. Some assembly required. The paper tape reader/punch on Teletype (if only had used my portable cam, Cannon 35mm with light meter. My HTC mobile has GB of pictures.

    I traded fussing with BASIC interpreter to spit out HP assembly for fussing with loaders an bootstrap tapes. Yes there are only a few TA/LAB appointments. Sometimes luck is knowing what not to do. The demo of micio-computer system was serious vibe as suits were there. Teletype console fed ROM monitor and it booted with Address/Data Lights saying it was ready.

    A question to Professor, “What can it do now?” was answered perfectly by Professor, “Anything you want with proper upgrade and software.”

    Total silence. And I never saw the suits again.

    Note: Two-thirds of the space around the CS lab was DP, IT-accounting, card reader/punch, for IBM 360 with batch COBOL, FORTRAN, MACRO. Staff was not happy to see LAB-mice with box of cards; The IBM 360 transactions where school admin right down to my library card in Hollerith – A simulation request by Department Boss made them nervous.State of the Art computing in 1973’ish.

    Trivia: CBS Person of Interest episode shows kids playing The Oregon Trail in public library. Older girl always dies of dysentery, the younger friend completes game in no time gets #1, says “Stupid Game” while typing ROOT as name. Simulated screens no doubt as running actual game was never placed in director’s note or commentary.

  2. Tom

    November 7, 2017 at 9:19 pm

    if hadn’t been -> if it hadn’t been ?

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 8, 2017 at 11:19 am


  3. Adele

    January 13, 2018 at 11:04 pm

    I always appreciate passing the slow time at the reference desk reading (or in this case, re-reading now that I’m finally all caught up over the years) your history of computing, IF, and personal computing as we know it. I wanted to give you a hugely belated “thank you” for the effort you went through to archive this history.

    I suppose it’s a sign of the times that going back to even this article in 2018, some of the links to sources used as references (like the Yahoo group) are now dead. Fortunately, those conversations are archived on the Way Back Machine through – so thank you for documenting and linking, so that even the now-dead links can be traced back to the source.

    • rusty

      August 31, 2018 at 4:31 am

      It’s remarkable research and incredible reading, something that should be shared with anyone with a remote interest in the subject: a second thanks, in comment form.

  4. King Lysandus

    April 28, 2019 at 6:31 pm

    Is that “unorganized dump to a huge tape image” still around? Where did you find it?

  5. Leo Vellès

    February 3, 2021 at 3:01 pm

    The first time i read your blog, i thought “how annoying these people correcting every small typo”.
    Then i saw that you encourage them, and a little army of editors rose to help you.
    First time i read this entry, i didn`t catch up this one. The advantages of giving a second spin to these amazing blog….
    “and to look through this mass to see if there might be an copy”.
    That should be “a copy” i think.

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 5, 2021 at 2:20 pm


  6. Sam Ursu

    July 3, 2021 at 9:38 am

    “…the 2100 series could be equipped with a number of possible operating system.”

    Needs an S there at the end. Second paragraph.

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 4, 2021 at 9:06 am


  7. No'am Newman

    March 30, 2022 at 1:14 pm

    “This system was very unique in its time”. Pet peeve: something is either unique or not; there are no ‘degrees of uniqueness’.

    The programming environment that you describe sounds like RSTS/E on the DEC PDP/11 which is where I started programming 40 years ago. In BASIC, until I wrote a bridge program whose listing was taller than I was, which is when I moved to Pascal.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 2, 2022 at 8:29 am

      True. Thanks!


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