Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail

MECC
MECC

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Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death.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'
MECC

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.

Too Sexy to Last: The Right Said Fred Story

Ralph Orlowski, Getty Images
Ralph Orlowski, Getty Images

Guy Holmes popped the tape into the cassette player in his car and waited. The British record promoter was eager to hear new acts, but knew that the majority of them weren’t going to be good or unique enough to cut through the noise of the worldwide music scene. In 1991, it was still a multibillion dollar business, not yet smothered by file-sharing. Success was determined by decision-makers at record labels and radio stations, whose tastes were often mercurial and hard to anticipate.

The cassette had been given to Holmes by a friend, a 19-year-old named Tamzin Aronowitz. She was dating Rob Manzoli, the guitarist of an act called Right Said Fred, and insisted the group—which also consisted of brothers Richard and Fred Fairbrass—had a hook. He listened.

I’m too sexy for my car

Too sexy for my car

Too sexy by far

And I’m too sexy for my hat

Too sexy for my hat

What do you think about that?

Holmes was driving with a friend, a man of Russian descent who had been drinking vodka for most of the night. As Richard Fairbrass sang about other things he was too sexy for—Milan, Japan, parties, his shirt—Holmes noticed his passenger bouncing in his seat and mouthing the words.

This might be a dumb song, Holmes thought. A very dumb song. But it’s catchy.

By 1992, “I’m Too Sexy” was the number one tune in 32 countries, including the United States, and the Fairbrass brothers went from being gym managers and sporadic musicians to the kitschy pop act of the moment. But they wondered whether people knew they were in on the joke, and whether they had the ability to survive the plague that had taken down so many talented musicians before them—the affliction of being an overnight success.

 
 

Richard Fairbrass was born in East Grinstead, Sussex in 1953. His brother, Fred, followed three years later. Raised in a relatively well-off environment by Peter and Mary Fairbrass, Richard thought he might wind up becoming a politician; Fred was more interested in athletics. By their late teens, both had gravitated toward music, forgoing any thought of a formal career in exchange for odd jobs and band practice that led to small gigs with London punk bands. At one performance, an irate—or possibly enthused—fan managed to pee on Richard.

From 1977 to 1987, they performed under a variety of names, including Trash Flash and Money, and landed a series of not-quite-breakthrough gigs. Richard got a job as a session musician for three David Bowie music videos, while Fred had a stint backing up Bob Dylan. Their act wavered from punk to rock to a blend of the two.

After an unsuccessful tour of New York, the brothers returned to London in 1988. Both took to going to the gym to build their bodies back up and shaved their heads. They also met Rob Manzoli, a guitarist, and Brian Pugsley, who had access to computer synthesizers that the brothers thought might evolve their sound into something more palatable than their acoustic act.

Jamming in Pugsley’s apartment one night over a bass line inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Richard took off his shirt—it was hot in there—and proclaimed he was “too sexy” for it. From that line evolved an entire hook that played on the narcissism the brothers had witnessed both in the gym and among the models in New York’s fashion scene. The song wasn’t about the band thinking they were too sexy, but about the self-absorbed egos who really believed it. Supported by a backing track from a DJ named Tommy D, "I'm Too Sexy" was polished into an anthem about vanity.

 
 

Now going by Right Said Fred—a name they took from a 1962 Bernard Cribbins song about furniture movers—the trio started shopping the single to record labels. No one was interested. The only bite was from Holmes, who tried to entice executives but was met with the same resistance. In a self-admitted act of “belligerence,” Holmes produced copies of the single himself, while his secretary, Aronowitz, became the group’s manager. It was a homegrown operation, one in which the group was urged to formally record the final version of the song in an unheated studio because it was cheaper.

“I’m Too Sexy” made its way into the hands of producers at the BBC and Capital Radio. “I’m not sure if this is good or it’s crap,” one radio producer said, then played it anyway. The song spread quickly, making its way to the top of the most-requested queues in England. A DJ from Miami was on vacation in Europe when he heard it. From there, it spread to the United States and abroad, topping the Billboard Top 100 chart for three weeks straight and becoming a perpetual club selection well into 1992. (It only rose to number two in the UK, trumped by Bryan Adams’s “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.”) The pop icon of the era, Madonna, announced she was sexually interested in Fred. Truant students announced they were “too sexy” for school. Stewardesses asked the brothers if they weren’t “too sexy” to be on a plane, a variation on a joke that they would wind up hearing thousands of times.

“It’s part of the job,” Fred said of the jokes.

Almost immediately, Right Said Fred underwent what industry veterans would call an "image makeover." A fashion designer squeezed them into vinyl outfits, fishnet shirts, and various half-clothed stage uniforms. Though they were in their early thirties, they fibbed and told reporters they were in their early twenties. They were advised to ease up on the weightlifting, as their pumped-up physiques were deemed too frightening for general public consumption.

Holmes produced their first album, 1992's Up, and helped them spin off two more successful songs: “Don’t Talk Just Kiss” and “Deeply Dippy.” They made the requisite MTV appearances and fended off speculation that “I’m Too Sexy” was a sign of them being the prototypical one-hit wonder.

Unfortunately, "I'm Too Sexy" wound up proving exactly that. But the brothers would argue that it was not their fault—it was Holmes’s.

 
 

Up had taken just five weeks to record. Their sophomore album, Sex and Travel, took nine months. Released in 1993, it failed to capture the public’s attention in the way “I’m Too Sexy” seemed to reverberate with kids, teens, and adults.

The brothers would later point the finger at Holmes, claiming he had chosen to release the wrong single tracks; Holmes countered that Richard and Fred had final say over what got the “A” side of the records. Subsequent albums followed—nine in all—but none ever reached the heights of their event-filled summer of 1991.

“I’m Too Sexy” remains a popular jab at people who indulge in vanity, and the brothers still perform it as part of their regular gigs. (Manzoli left the band in the mid-1990s.) They approved a new version targeting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad (who was revealed to have had the song on his playlist) and debuted it on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in 2014. (“I’m too sexy for this shirt” became “You’re too awful for this Earth.”) To this day, however, Fred believes there’s still some confusion over whether the song is to be taken seriously. He tried to clarify it for Rolling Stone in 2017.

“They didn’t get the cynicism and the joke,” he said. “But the idea of the song is that you obviously can’t be too sexy, right? No one can be too sexy.”

Bottle Service: How Snapple Took Over the 1990s

David Paul Morris, Getty Images
David Paul Morris, Getty Images

For many consumer brands, the ultimate sign of success is being the subject of an urban legend. In 1985, Procter & Gamble had to refute accusations that their moon and stars logo was somehow representative of Satan worship. In the 1990s, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s publicity department fielded questions about raising eight-legged chickens with no beaks in order to satisfy product demand. In the trifecta of brand disparagement, a rumor circulated in the early 1970s that “Mikey,” the spokes-kid for Life Cereal, had died after mixing Pop Rocks candy with Coca-Cola to produce a combustible blend that blew up his stomach.

In 1993, it was Snapple’s turn. For months, word had circulated in California's Bay Area that the massively popular iced tea and fruit drink brand was secretly funneling money to the Ku Klux Klan organization. The reason? A small “K” appeared on the product label. The rumor persisted to the point that Snapple took out ads in California newspapers to declare they had no involvement with the group.

That such a rumor existed was a kind of testament to the brand's market dominance. Originally founded in Long Island as a regional manufacturer of alternative drinks, Snapple had grown from $13.3 million in revenue in 1988 to $774 million in 1994. Positioned as a healthy alternative to soft drinks, the company used clever marketing, homespun consumer relations, and a relatable spokeswoman to become one of the biggest consumer success stories of the 1990s.

Unfortunately, Snapple’s problems went beyond being falsely affiliated with a racist hate group. Despite their raging success and a $1.7 billion valuation, the company lost sight of the marketing strategy that had catapulted them to a leading position in the beverage market. By 1997, consumers were losing their taste for the “best stuff on earth."

 
 

Arnold Greenberg was running a health food store in 1972 when two old friends joined him in a new venture. Leonard Marsh and Hyman Golden were brothers-in-law and owned a window washing business. On the side, they partnered with Greenberg to create Unadulterated Food Products, Inc., peddling fruit juices, eggs, and produce to other health food stores in and around New York City.

The men intended for their flagship product to be a carbonated fruit juice, combining the fizz of a soft drink with natural ingredients. Their first try, apple juice, fermented in the bottle and exploded, popping off caps and ruining their inventory. The drink was abandoned, but the name—Snapple, a mix of “snappy” and “apple”—stuck. (A company in Texas happened to have already trademarked the name. The three men bought it for $500.)

A bottle of Snapple sits on a table
chrisjtse, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Unadulterated Food Products did steady business for much of the 1980s selling to bodegas, delis, and other food service locations where people could pick up a bottle to go along with their lunch. In 1987, they had a breakthrough with their approach to iced tea. By bottling it hot, the company was able to avoid adding preservatives, which bolstered their all-natural claims. And by offering it year-round instead of just in the summer, they appealed to consumers who enjoyed the drink in cooler weather.

Snapple embraced their homemade identity. Sipping tea from their wide-mouth bottles was not unlike sipping from a piece of glassware on a porch somewhere; their labels were haphazard in design, the graphics a little lopsided. Compared to the corporate perfection of Coca-Cola, Snapple seemed scrappy.

 
 

Despite the company’s commitment to a casual aesthetic, Greenberg and his partners were taken aback in 1993, when advertising firm Kirshenbaum Bond presented their newest idea for a national ad campaign. They wanted to film the company’s mailroom lady, Wendy Kaufman.

Kaufman had arrived at Snapple in 1991 after getting a referral from a friend’s father who also happened to be a close friend of Greenberg’s. Working in the shipping department, Kaufman took notice of the many letters that were pouring in to the company’s Valley Stream, Long Island headquarters. She asked a supervisor if she could begin responding to them. From there, Kaufman’s job developed into more of a public relations representative.

The ad firm’s idea was to maintain both Snapple’s simplicity and Kaufman’s unrehearsed appeal by shooting a series of television spots that would feature her reading real letters from behind a desk and then following up with the correspondent. One kid wrote in saying he’d make a good mascot; Kaufman showed up with a film crew and took him to mascot school. Another asked Kaufman to be his prom date; she accepted.

For Kaufman, it was an opportunity to distance herself from a self-admitted coke addiction (not the carbonated kind) that had started in 1980. For Snapple, it represented a chance to further their brand identity by passing up the kind of rock star endorsements common in the beverage industry. The 37 commercial spots, shot between 1993 and 1995, were enormously popular, and Kaufman became a mascot on par with Tony the Tiger. She made personal appearances, storming dorm rooms with cases of Snapple. She sifted through 2000 letters a week. Sales jumped from $232 million in 1992 to $774 million in 1994. Snapple was on Seinfeld, on the lips of radio personality Howard Stern, and celebrated for its unique marketing approach.

Then “Crapple” happened.

 
 

In 1992, Greenberg, Marsh, and Golden agreed to sell a majority stake in Snapple to the Thomas H. Lee investment firm, with Marsh remaining on as CEO. Then, in 1994, Snapple was sold to the Quaker Oats Company. As successful as Snapple had been, industry observers were excited to see what a global conglomerate could do to carry the brand further.

As the Harvard Business Review would later point out, fostering an already-successful brand is not as easy as it appears. Quaker Oats had enjoyed an explosion of support for its Gatorade sports drink brand and believed it could apply some of those same strategies to Snapple. Bottles got bigger, from the standard 16 ounces to 32 and even 64-ounce containers. Gone was Kaufman, no longer a good fit for Quaker’s polished promotional plans. They also cut ties with Stern, believing the controversial entertainer didn't reflect Snapple’s growing maturity in the market.

Bottles of Snapple line a store shelf
David Paul Morris, Getty Images

In retrospect, Quaker had erred on all counts. Consumers had little interest in vats of iced tea in 64-ounce containers, preferring to sip smaller bottles at work. They missed Kaufman, who was synonymous with the brand’s irreverence and homegrown feel. And Stern, who could be caustic when he felt minimized by sponsors, began using his considerable airtime to roast Snapple, calling it “Crapple.” The rants were beamed to millions of his listeners at stations around the country.

Quaker had, in effect, misjudged or mistimed Snapple’s graduation from plucky beverage upstart to a dignified institution. The company sold the brand to Triarc for $300 million in 1997. They had paid $1.4 billion for it just three years earlier. Following the sale, Quaker CEO Bill Smithburg resigned from his post.

 
 

Though Snapple’s heyday may have passed, there was still considerable consumer enthusiasm for its more adventurous flavors (like Diet Kiwi Strawberry Cocktail, which was allegedly a favorite among some horses at a Seattle stable) and for a return to less aggressive marketing. In 1997, Triarc invited Kaufman not only to come back and shoot a new commercial but to allow her face to be stamped on every bottle of Wendy’s Tropical Inspiration. And instead of limiting distributors to certain flavors, they shipped out more varied assortments and let consumers decide what they liked.

Triarc’s success was as notable as Quaker’s failure. The company sold Snapple to Cadbury Schweppes in 2000 for $1.45 billion. As part of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, the brand changed hands once more early in 2018, selling to coffee cup giant Keurig, part of the JAB Holdings investment group, in exchange for $18.7 billion to shareholders.

It’s been a roller coaster of a ride for Snapple, which started in a small health food store, became a part of popular culture, was nearly done in by a misguided marketing plan, and was finally restored to its former glory by a company willing to get back to the basics.

As for that hate group involvement: The “K” on the label never had any connection with Klan activity. It stood for “kosher.”

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