On the Trail of the Oregon Trail, Part 3

03 Apr

My search for the original Oregon Trail code as first written at Carleton College having turned up nothing, I set out to find the earliest version I could. That turned out to be the one posted by one Deserthat in his blog. This version appeared in the May-June 1978 issue of Creative Computing. But before I get to that let me talk just a bit about the seven years that elapsed between the game’s creation and its appearance in Creative Computing.

Rawitsch, Heinemann, and Dillenberger were roommates enrolled in the student teaching program at Carleton College in 1971; Heinemann and Dillenberger taught math, Rawitsch taught history. It was Rawitsch who first conceived of and designed The Oregon Trail as a board game, and Heinemann and Dillenberger who suggested that it be computerized and then programmed it in Time-Shared BASIC. The first outside of this trio to play it were the students in Rawitsch’s history class, on a teletype machine which Rawitsch wheeled into his classroom on December 3, 1971. According to Rawitsch, they “loved it.” Rawitsch and many other teachers in the Minneapolis school district used it frequently for the remainder of the term. When Rawitsch left the district in 1972, however, he deleted The Oregon Trail from the system and took it with him as a long roll of printed paper which he ended up tossing into a drawer somewhere and forgetting about.

As it happens, Minnesota was something of a center of computer innovation in these days. In 1973 the state’s legislature founded an organization called The Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), with a mandate to seek out and implement new applications for computers in education. A UNIVAC 1100 mainframe was installed at MECC’s Minneapolis headquarters, and some 1500 terminals were connected to it from schools throughout the state. In 1974, MECC hired Rawitsch to work as “a liason between MECC and a group of community colleges.”

Encouraged to think about new applications for computers in education, Rawitsch recalled that yellowing printout of The Oregon Trail. He punched it into a teletype connected to MECC’s UNIVAC over a “long Thanksgiving weekend” in 1974. The UNIVAC was a mainframe rather than a minicomputer like the HP-2100 — a very different proposition altogether. Luckily, it did have a version of BASIC available. [Actually, this is not quite correct. I learned after writing this that Rawitsch initially keyed the program into another HP-2100 system. See Part 4 of this series for more about that.] In addition to presumably being modified by Rawitsch or someone else at MECC to suit the UNIVAC’s implementation of BASIC, The Oregon Trail was also enhanced by Rawitsch himself to be more historically accurate, consistent, and entertaining. That version was played by thousands of schoolchildren all over the state during the next several years.

In 1977, MECC replaced its aging UNIVAC with a top-of-the-line CDC Cyber-73 system, and The Oregon Trail was modified once again to run on that system. This was the version that appeared in Creative Computing in 1978, and the version I back-ported to HP Time-Shared BASIC in order to experience The Oregon Trail in something close to its original form.

Now, as for Creative Computing… well, there’s one hell of an interesting story there as well.

Founded in 1974 by David Ahl, Creative Computing was the first mass-market magazine devoted to computers, predating even Byte by a full year. In keeping with its name, Creative Computing approached its subject not as an exercise in business and engineering, but as an artistic and cultural phenomenon. Its pages have plenty of technical advice and program listings, but also plenty of speculation on what the impending computer revolution really means. These “soft” articles are perhaps not surprising when one considers that many of the people who read the magazine could only dream of and speculate about access to a real computer of their own. There is much enthusiasm, but also some trepidation, most prominently in repeatedly expressed concerns about civil liberties in the new world to come. Both its idealism and its anti-authoritarian bent seem anchored in the by then fading counterculture of the late 1960s. I’m always reminded when I read it of the atmosphere around Berkeley’s Community Memory project, as described so well by Stephen Levy in Hackers.

Before founding Creative Computing Ahl was Education Marketing Manager for DEC. In keeping with this background and with its humanistic focus, Creative Computing was always very interested in the use of computers for education, devoting many pages to the subject in almost every issue. It’s thus not a big surprise that The Oregon Trail ended up there; if anything, the surprise is that it didn’t appear sooner.

By the time it did, MECC, which shows every sign of having been quite the visionary organization, was already getting involved with the new generation of “microcomputers,” as they were called in those days. MECC began installing Apple IIs into many Minnesota classrooms that year. And, yes, The Oregon Trail was ported yet again to run on them.

And so, with that history dispensed with, I’ll finally have a close look at the game itself next time around, which is after all where I’ve been trying to go with this shaggy-dog story all along.


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11 Responses to On the Trail of the Oregon Trail, Part 3

  1. Jason Dyer

    April 4, 2011 at 4:37 am

    Were you still going to tackle Hamurabi after this?

    One other set of old games to try are the ones Gregory Yob mentioned as inspiration (or rather reaction to displeasure with) for Wumpus: Hurkle, Snark, and Mugwump.

    I also think Star Trader (1974) is worth a try.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 4, 2011 at 5:15 am

      I definitely want to have another look at Wumpus, the original version of which I DID find on that HP-2100 tape dump, and in the process will also have a look at those predecessors you mentioned if I can find them. I haven’t yet made a serious search for Hamurabi. And beyond that, I’m just not sure at this point. I’ve been enjoying taking my blog’s title literally, but there’s just so much else to do as well. You know how it is I’m sure.

  2. Alex Smith

    May 31, 2017 at 6:52 pm

    Stepping into the ancient past here I know, but I happened to be looking at some Oregon Trail stuff and realized there was an article written earlier this year which has input not only from Rawitsch, but from Heinemann and Dillenberger as well. According to the two programmers, they tried the game out on their students before Rawitsch showed it in his history class, so your statement that Rawitsch’s students were the first to play it outside of the creators appears to be incorrect.

  3. Sam Ursu

    July 3, 2021 at 9:41 am

    “a long role of printed paper which he ended up tossing into a drawer somewhere and forgetting about”

    Obviously, this was meant to be a ROLL of paper.

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 4, 2021 at 9:05 am


  4. Chris

    December 22, 2021 at 1:38 am

    What was the reason for Rawitsch deleting the original Oregon Trail? Consider that there were 3 contributors and as you note later in the series he wasn’t the strongest coder, it seems selfish to deprive them of the shared work. Especially during a time period where sharing programs was the norm.

    Perhaps I’m looking for too much controversy but if anything had been said about his motivations it would be interesting to know.

    Loving the blog and hoping you don’t get a fancy new job and delete it:)

    • Jimmy Maher

      December 22, 2021 at 8:18 am

      Sorry, I simply don’t know.

    • Carlos

      May 4, 2022 at 12:52 pm

      He explains it here. Sorry I’m with my Phone and I don’t have the exact minute.

  5. Vince

    September 7, 2022 at 7:13 am

    Apparently, the 1978 Creative Computing issue where Oregon Trail appears is the May-June one (page 132) not the July-August one.

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 8, 2022 at 8:38 am

      Good catch. Thanks!


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