My Eamon Problem

15 Apr

Fair warning — this post is going to be a bit meta. It has two purposes. The first is easily dispensed with: to tell you that I’ve revised my earlier posts on the history of Eamon to reflect what I believe to be a more supportable chronology which does not have the system appearing until late 1979. The rest of what follows describes briefly how I came to my conclusions. This is all rather inside baseball, but those of you thinking of growing up to become digital antiquarians yourselves might be interested in this slice of my poor detail-obsessed life.

Traditional histories have given Eamon a release date of 1980, presumably because the first published article about the system, a piece written by Don Brown himself for Recreational Computing, dates from the summer of that year. I initially saw no reason to doubt the traditional chronology. But then I made contact with John Nelson, founder of the National Eamon Users Club. He dropped a bomb on me by saying he had first played Eamon in 1978, and that at that time there were already four additional scenarios available. As the guy who probably did more for Eamon than anyone else, including its creator, Nelson was a hard fellow to doubt. So I wrote those posts based largely on his chronology, even though I never could manage to feel really confident in it. Ever since, those posts have remained the ones I’m least happy about. My dissatisfaction was such that I recently started rummaging through all of the early Eamon disks again, looking for something that would let me pin a definite date onto at least one of them, and thereby begin to build a chronology. As it happened, I found what I was looking for, and that in turn prompted me to revise the earlier articles and write this post. Before I tell you what I found, however, let me first state some of the misgivings that sent me looking in the first place.

The Apple II actually had two versions of the BASIC language. The original machine had in its ROM a very stripped-down version of the language, one that had been put together quickly by Steve Wozniak himself. This version was soon dubbed “Integer BASIC” because it had no support for floating-point (i.e., decimal) numbers, only integers. Because floating-point numbers are very important to certain types of applications, Apple quickly realized the need for a better, more complete implementation of BASIC. They bought one from Microsoft and spent considerable effort customizing it for the Apple II. They dubbed it Applesoft BASIC upon its release in January of 1978. Applesoft was initially not widely used, however, both because its earliest incarnation was quite buggy and because it was housed on tape or disk rather than in ROM, meaning the user had to load it into RAM to use it. With most machines still equipped with only 16 K of memory in these early days, Applesoft, which consumed 10 K by itself, was impractical for most users. It only really caught on from May of 1979, when Apple began shipping the II Plus with Applesoft in ROM; to run an Integer BASIC program on the II Plus, one had to load that language in from disk.

Yet Eamon is written in Applesoft BASIC. And there’s something else: the standard Eamon needs pretty much all of a 48 K Apple II’s memory. (The master disk did originally contain a special, stripped-down version of the program for 32 K machines.) It’s doubtful that it would even be possible to load Applesoft from disk and still have room for Eamon. Even if it was, a 48 K machine would have been a very unusually powerful one for 1978. After the 48 K Apple II Plus began shipping, however, the larger memory quite quickly became an expected standard.

And there’s the text-adventure chronology problem. Scott Adams first released Adventureland and Pirate Adventure during the second half of 1978 for the TRS-80. These games did not appear on the Apple II until early the following year, where they represent the first text adventures available for that platform. To have developed Eamon in 1978, Brown would have had to either: 1) be aware enough of the TRS-80 world that he played Adams’s games and decided to implement a similarly parser-based interface on the Apple II ; 2) have played Crowther and Woods’s Adventure or one of the other games it spawned on a big institutional computer; or 3) have come up with the concept of the text-adventure interface on his own, from scratch. None of these are impossible, but none seems hugely likely either. Depending on when in 1978 Eamon was released, an early Eamon even creates the somewhat earthshaking possibility that it may have been Brown, not Scott Adams, who first brought the text adventure to the microcomputer. Again, this just doesn’t feel right to me.

And then there’s that Recreational Computing article itself. In it Brown writes, “I know of five additional adventure diskettes.” Nelson, on the other hand, believes that “about 20” adventures were available by 1980. He suggested to me that Brown was perhaps referring to adventures that he himself had not written, but it’s very hard for me to read this sense into the paragraph in question. Nelson’s other suggestion, that the article had just lain on the shelf for many months before being printed, seems equally a stretch. If everything else pointed to an earlier chronology, I could accept such reasoning, but in combination with the other questions it becomes a good deal harder.

And then I found what I was looking for. Eamon #3, The Cave of the Mind, was the first not to be written by Brown himself, being from Jim Jacobson and Red Varnum. At the beginning of one of its programs is an REM statement with an actual date: January 30, 1980. This was enough to tip me back over to something much closer to the traditional chronology, with Brown developing the system in the latter half of 1979 in the wake of the Apple II Plus’s release. Sure, it’s possible that the date in the code of Cave represents a revision date rather than a date of completion or release, even though it doesn’t say this. But weighed together with all the other evidence, I feel pretty confident a later date for Eamon is more likely than an earlier.

None of this is meant to criticize John Nelson, who generously shared his memories with me. It’s just that 30 years is a long time. It’s also possible that Nelson might have played an earlier proto-Eamon, presumably written in Integer BASIC for an Apple II with much less memory, which Brown expanded at a later date into the Eamon we know today. Yet unless some real documentary evidence surfaces, or Brown suddenly starts talking, that remains only speculation.

So, the current Eamon articles still represent something of a best guess, and as such I’m still not entirely happy with them. But I think it’s a better guess than the one I made the first time around. Barring more new data, that will have to do.


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12 Responses to My Eamon Problem

  1. Felix Pleșoianu

    April 17, 2012 at 7:41 am

    Isn’t it paradoxical how we can tell exactly what took place centuries ago on certain occasions, yet we struggle to figure out the details of something that happened during our lifetimes?

    Maybe not. The recently recovered source code disk for Prince of Persia says “PLEASE DO NOT COPY” in big, friendly letters across the label. A generation later, Jordan Mechner is overjoyed that someone actually has a chance to recover the data…

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 17, 2012 at 8:27 am

      Yeah. One of the great ironies of digital preservation is that if the publishers had had their way a huge chunk of gaming history would be lost. They spent huge amounts of time and effort trying to ensure their disks were uncopyable, then proceeded to do a terrible job of preserving their data through corporate bankruptcies, mergers, and reorganizations. The dirty pirates who cracked their schemes and moved the software from fallible floppies to electronic archives are the reason people like me have something to study today.

      Wonder if we’ll be musing in a similar way 30 years from now when talking about today’s software with all of its activation and rights-management schemes…

  2. Huw Williams

    June 29, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    Thanks for an interesting update!

  3. Jason Dyer

    January 20, 2015 at 1:40 am

    I notice that the Eamon Wiki

    has the first two adventures pegged 1979, and adventures 3-10 as being from 1980.

    Given you talked with John Nelson once, I don’t suppose you could make contact again and ask?

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 20, 2015 at 8:41 am

      I strongly suspect that’s in response to this article. Nelson himself was certain that he had first played Eamon in 1978, but for the reasons outlined in this article I find that very unlikely.

      But feel free to drop me a line privately if you’d like me to try to introduce you to Nelson at the last email address I have for him.

  4. Mike Taylor

    October 31, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    “Because floating-point numbers are very important to certain types of applications (most obviously accounting) …”

    A nitpick. Good accounting software would never use floating point numbers, because they are inherently imprecise. (0.1 * 10.0 is almost never 1.0.) Instead, software of that kind would be more likely to use scaled integers — e.g. counting cents rather than dollars, or perhaps in extreme cases hundredths of cents.

    Of course, there were lots of good reasons to move away from Integer BASIC! But I don’t think this was one of them.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 1, 2017 at 8:10 am

      What’s obvious obviously isn’t always true. ;) Thanks!

    • Nathanael

      March 6, 2021 at 3:54 am

      It was scientific software which used floating point. Accounting didn’t. But physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc. definitely wanted floating point.

  5. Matthew Clark

    January 4, 2018 at 2:03 am

    I was getting ready to port the website to a new server and came across this post again, five years later. You said that Brown was either aware of Adams, played Adventure, or come up with it from scratch. I was thinking that sure there is some published evidence somewhere, and I think I found some more clues.

    Look at the last full paragraph of the Recreational Computing article. “Furthermore, so far all of the adventures written for Eamon have resembled the Woods and Crowther’s Adventure”. Also, there’s a reference in the “Lair of the Minotaur” saying “A Sign on the wall says, ‘Stop! Go No Further! Dungeon under construction beyond here. Danger! Witt Construction Company.’ ” Pretty close to the “A sign in midair here says ~Cave under construction beyond this point. Proceed at own risk. [Witt Construction Company]” from Advent. So, of your options, it seems quite likely that the second one is most likely.

    Regarding the language that “he knew of five additional adventure disks.” While Nelson suggests there were twenty by 1980, he may be off a bit. Plamondon’s January 1983 article states that there were only 25 by the time it was written ( Also, consider Bob Davis’s 1985 article on the “Birth” of the NEUC—he states there were ten adventures by summer of 1980 (See A 1985 article from someone who worked with it is probably more reliable than Nelson remembering twenty. But what to make of Brown’s comments of five additional adventure disks? Conflicting sources say there were either six or ten adventure disks by summer of 1980.

    I see two ways out of this conundrum:
    1. Brown wrote the Main Hall and all of his adventures, 2, 5, 6, and 9. He knew of five additional adventures. This could easily be 3, 4, 7, and 8 from Jacobson, and #10 from David Cook. That would be ten total adventures by Summer of 1980.
    2. As Nelson suggested, Recreational Computing was slow in publishing. This was a guest writer who had probably typed up his article and mailed it in with supporting text. They were publishing on a two-month schedule, probably six times a year. Add to that, magazines will frequently publish early (your January 2018 issue arrives in mid-December). Given the deadlines and lags in publishing even today, I would imagine that it was very conceivable that Brown wrote article in early 1980, perhaps between January and April before sending it in. By the time he wrote it, it was already stale. However, I can’t imagine that it would have been so stale as to be off by six or more adventures.
    Could have easily been both.

    Regardless, based on the “Cave of the Minds” date of January 1980, either 7 adventures were written by two people in six months, or some of the adventures were already in development in 1979 and were only introduced later, once Brown had personally play tested them. And my guess is that the Cave of the Minds date is not the date that it was started, rather the date that it had completed play testing and published.

    But you suppose that it was released in the latter half of 1979 in the wake of the Apple II Plus release. We do know that it was not created in integer first. The Recreational Computing article states “So far, Eamon has only been implemented on the Apple II (Due to the fact that it is the computer I own.) It requires either an Apple II Plus, or an Apple II with the Applesoft ROM Card.” I think this suggests that there was no predecessor integer version. However, the same article states that his father brought home one of the first Apple IIs “almost three years ago” which would be late 1977. He didn’t need to wait for a II Plus—he already had an Apple II and had what he needed with the ROM card that came out in 1978. I find it unlikely that he would have bought a ][+ if he already had a ][.

    In the Recreational Computing Article, alongside Brown’s picture, he notes that Bill Fesselmeyer’s influence was over two years ago, so before summer 1978. That coincides with when Fesselmeyer founded the Des Moines area SCA chapter. Bill is the one who introduced him to FRP games and later urged him to write Eamon. This opens the possibility of development in 1978.

    So, back to your original question regarding Nelson’s 1978 comment. Consider that you were surprised he said 1978. Yet, in this 2013 comment, he said that he was involved in 1979. (See If he was involved in 1979 and there were already “four additional scenarios available” then not only does that support the “Cave of the Minds” January 1980 date being a final revision date, but also that the system had five separate adventures from at least three authors (Brown, Jacobson, and Varnum) going in 1979. I think this suggests a much more robust 1979 than your “late 1979” date conclusion suggests. I think it also leaves open the possibility that the system itself was being developed in late 1978, even if it wasn’t released to anyone yet…

    I suppose someone could always make the effort to reach out to Don Brown. I’m actually more curious as to the reason for his departure and the apparent animosity between him and the rest of the Eamon world once he did leave. I’d love to try to reconcile the situation. After all, Eamon has been a part of my life since 1984, and I’d love to thank the man who started it all.

    • Huw Williams

      August 4, 2020 at 12:02 pm

      Matthew: Your analysis is excellent and very helpful; I agree that all signs point to 1979 as the most likely year for Eamon’s debut. I also wanted to mention that I had the opportunity recently to chat a little about the early history of the game with Jim Jacobson who was happy to share what he remembered about the its origins:

      His recollections are fascinating, though I’m a little surprised by his statement that “sometime during 1980 Donald came in to the Computer Emporium with his new game, Eamon,” since of course that doesn’t quite square with some of the other evidence. Since Jim elsewhere allows uncertainty about exact years — for instance, recalling that the Emporium opened “around 1978-79” and that they hired him in “1979-80?” — my sense is that he may simply be misremembering the exact year that Brown brought the game in to share with the members of the CE club, but I didn’t press on that point.

      On a slightly different note, Jim also clarifies the role that the late Red Varnum played in the creation of “The Cave of the Mind”, which was something I’d always wondered about.


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