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Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail

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The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
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Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

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The Unkindest Cut: A Short History of the Mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Jerry Seinfeld wore it on primetime television for nine years. Brad Pitt thinks his career got off the ground because he wore one to his Thelma & Louise audition. Peter Dinklage’s high school photo went viral as a direct result of the bold choice.

For all of these men and millions of others, the mullet has had profound and lasting effects on their lives. Famously described as being “business in the front, party in the back” and sometimes referred to as a “squirrel pelt” or the “ape drape,” the short-front, long-backed hairstyle might be the most controversial cut in the history of grooming. What started it? And can anything kill it?

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Although it doesn’t have quite the same archaeological provenance as hieroglyphs or dinosaur bones, mullet historians believe there’s ample evidence to suggest that the hairstyle has been with mankind for centuries. Neanderthals may have favored it to keep hair out of their eyes and protect their necks from wind and rain. Greek statues dating back to the 6th century BCE sport the cut. Ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia and Syria rocked it.

Most of these populations embraced the cut for practical purposes: protection from the elements and visibility. But the direct lineage of the mullet to the modern day might be traceable from Native Americans, who often wore their hair short in front and kept it long in the back as a sign of their spiritual strength. The style was eventually appropriated by Western culture and made its way to settlements; colonial wigs, particularly George Washington’s, look a little mullet-esque.

The mullet remained dormant for much of the 20th century. Conformity led to sharp, practical cuts for men and traditional styles for women. That began to change in the 1960s, when counterculture movements expressed their anti-establishment leanings in their mode of dress. Long hair on guys became commonplace. In the 1970s, entertainers looking to appear even more audacious pushed their stage presence to extremes. For David Bowie, that meant a distinctive hairstyle that was cropped over the eyes and ears and left hanging in the back.

 David Bowie performs his final concert as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon, London on July 3, 1973
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Bowie’s popularity drew fresh attention to the mullet, although it didn’t yet have a name. The arrival of MTV led to even more exposure, which soon migrated to other mediums. Richard Marx’s blow-dried variant led to George Clooney’s The Facts of Life sculpt. Patrick Swayze’s ‘do in 1989’s Road House deserved equal screen billing. Mel Gibson raced through three Lethal Weapon movies with a well-insulated neck. John Stamos consoled his widowed brother-in-law on Full House with an epic mullet. Richard Dean Anderson diffused bombs on MacGyver for years with the “Arkansas waterfall.” Some fads last months. The mullet seemed to be hanging on for the long term.

But public derision was brewing. The style began to be appropriated by a demographic fond of trucker hats and sandals. The death blow came when the Beastie Boys mocked the cut on their 1994 track “Mullet Head,” a song the Oxford English Dictionary credits with naming the fad. (A “mullet head” had long been an insult used to label someone lacking in common sense: Mark Twain used it in 1884’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.) Suddenly, mullet-wearers were objects of ridicule and scorn, their locks outdated. For 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4, Gibson lost his trademark cut. It was the end of an era.

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Like most things in fashion, that would not be the end of the mullet. The cut has made periodic resurgences over the years, with people adopting ironic takeoffs or making legitimate attempts to return the coonskin cap-like look to its former glory. In Moscow, young men suddenly began sporting the look in 2005, which became ground zero for a follicular virus. Some less flexible countries even became proactively anti-mullet: Iran banned it, among other Western styles, in 2010.

Hairstylists generally avoid the waves of attention the mullet can sometimes provoke. “It's for people who are slightly confused, who believe they like long hair but don't want the image that they associate with long hair," celebrity hairstylist Jose Eber told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. He declared it “nonsense.”

For others, the appeal is enduring. Kurri Kurri, a small mining town in Australia, just hosted its first “mullet festival,” a celebration of all things badly shorn. “We have so many mullets in town,” said co-organizer Sarah Bedford. “My father-in-law had one for 60 years.”

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One Small Leap: The Enduring Appeal of Mexican Jumping Beans
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In the fall of 1923, street vendors in Santa Barbara, California received an unexpected bit of attention regarding one of their more popular wares: The San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the sellers' “freakish little brown seeds” that “cavorted about to the edification and delight of children and grownups."

Those “freakish” seeds were (and still are) known as Mexican jumping beans. Part novelty item and part entomology lesson, they’ve been a staple of street vendors, carnival workers, and comic book ads for nearly a century, thanks to their somewhat inexplicable agility. Some early theories posited that the beans moved because of electrostatic charging, or because of tiny gas explosions inside—but in reality, it was a larva living in the bean. In Santa Barbara, the local Humane Society was concerned that the tiny caterpillar was somehow suffering in the heat; a police sergeant confiscated several of the seeds and took them home to investigate.

THE BEAN MYTH

In truth, the bean is not really a bean at all but a seed pod. In the spring, adult moths deposit their eggs into the flower of the yerba de flecha (Sebastiana pavoniana) shrub, which is native to the mountains of northwestern Mexico. The hatched larvae nestle into the plant's seed pods, which fall off the tree, taking the larvae inside with them.

Each larva is quite content to remain in its little biosphere until it enters its pupal stage and eventually bores a hole to continue life as a moth. (But only when it’s good and ready: If the pod develops a hole before then, the caterpillar will repair it using natural webbing it makes.) The pod is porous and the larvae can eat the interior for nourishment. Metabolic water creates moisture for the larva, but it never needs to pee. Essentially, it's the ultimate in downsized efficiency living.

A Mexican jumping bean store display
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When it's in the pod, the larva isn’t exactly dormant: It twists and contorts itself to create encapsulated movement, almost like the snap of a rubber band. When it moves, so does the pod. No one is exactly sure why they do this, though some believe it's to keep the pod from settling on a hot surface (as high temperatures can be deadly to the insect).

The larva will keep up this activity for six to eight weeks. If a pod appears lifeless and rattles when shaken, it’s probably dead. If it lives, it will go dormant in winter before creating an escape hatch in the spring and flying off to begin life as a moth.

CHEAP THRILLS

It’s hard to know who exactly first decided to begin hawking the “beans” for amusement purposes, though some credit an enterprising man named Joaquin Hernandez with popularizing them in novelty shops in the 1940s. Later, in the 1960s, Joy Clement of Chaparral Novelties noticed the beans after her husband, a candy wholesaler, brought them home from a business trip. Though she was initially confounded by their appeal, Clement agreed to distribute the pods and watched them grow into a significant success: Between 1962 and 1994, Chaparral shipped 3 to 5 million of them each year, and saw the bean transition from sidewalk dealers to major chains like KB Toys.

“There's not much you can buy at a retail store that can give you this kind of satisfaction for under a buck," one bean dealer told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "It's one of the last of the low-end entertainments available in the world.”

Interest in the beans seems to come in waves, though that can sometimes depend on the weather in Mexico. The jumping bean's unusual insect-crop hybrid stature means that farmers in Álamos, Sonora—where the pod is harvested and remains the area's major export—rely heavily on ideal conditions. Lowered rainfall can result in lower yields. Álamos typically handles more than 20,000 liters of the pods annually. In 2005, thanks to unfavorable weather, it was just a few hundred.

BEAN PANIC

There have been other issues with marketing hermetic caterpillars for novelty purposes. A UPS driver once grew nervous that he was transporting a rattlesnake thanks to a shipment of particularly active pods. Bomb squads have been called in on at least two occasions because the noise prompted airport workers to believe a ticking explosive device was in their midst. And then there was the Humane Society, which remained dubious the beans were an ethical plaything. (Since the caterpillars repair breaches to the pod, the reasoning is that it seems like they want to be in there, though no one can say whether the insects enjoy being handled or stuffed into pockets.)

You can still find the beans today, including via online retailers. They’re harmless and buying them as "toys" is probably not harmful to the caterpillar inside, though the standard disclaimer warning owners not to eat the beans remains. The police sergeant in Santa Barbara found that out the hard way: After taking his nightly prescription pill, he felt an odd sensation and went to the hospital. After physicians pumped his stomach, they noted that he had accidentally consumed a jumping bean. In his digestive tract, it was leaping to get out.

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