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Where did you find the ideas for your screensavers?

"While working on my Ph.D. in the mid '80s, I got interested in the possibilities of personal computing with the then-new Macintosh. Graphics programming was really a new thing. I taught myself to program the Mac and wrote a little program to draw Feynman diagrams for my thesis. Scientific American magazine had some articles around that time that gave some algorithms for drawing simple on-screen animations - falling raindrops, expanding water ripples, expanding starfields. I thought these looked like fun and coded a few up and expanded on them, getting more and more sophisticated and drawing on my physics and math background to have things be more complicated and less predictable. Then I thought, well, it would be fun to have these come up as a screen saver; so I set out to write that. In those days there was basically one screen saver for the Mac: Pyro, which showed a fireworks display, period. My idea was: I wanted a screen saver where you could change the channel, so I could show all the different kinds of algorithmic drawings I was doing.

Which challenges did you encounter when making the screensaver? Was the initial idea very different from the final software?

Unfortunately in those days there was no concept of a screen saver in the operating system. So whatever we did to detect mouse motion, to black out the screen, to put a display reliably on top of everything else, had to be done despite what the operating system was trying to do. That meant that we had to "patch," or hack, the operating system itself. I taught myself 68000 assembly language and started to hammer on the OS. By the time I was done I had 93 patches on the operating system. So what started as a fun graphics programming project turned into a very complicated OS hack. Then I circled back and wrote a modular programming interface for the screen saver modules themselves.

A friend of mine from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Patrick Beard, had gone to work for Berkeley Systems, a small start-up that was doing operating system utilities. He connected me with Berkeley Systems' founder, Wes Boyd, who saw potential in what I was doing. We got together and brought the little company's resources to bear on professionalizing what I had started.

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Flying Toasters screensaver. Design: Jack Eastman and Patrick Beard. Developer Berkeley Systems for Apple Macintosh, 1989. Re-created in CSS by Bryan Braun.

Were you surprised by the public response?

After Dark 1.0 for the Macintosh was a success that surprised everybody. That energized us to think about 2.0, and how we could bring artistry to the screen well above and beyond the simple algorithmic graphics of 1.0. At some point I was bouncing around the house, sleepless, in the middle of the night, trying to think of some engaging animation I could do. I wandered in to the kitchen and saw a toaster, and my bleary mind put wings on it. I ran upstairs and sketched a few black and white animation frames in an icon editor (note: I am not an artist) and coded it up that night. Flying Toasters was born.

Do you currently use a screensaver on your computer? Do you see a future for screensavers?

I'm afraid the glory days of the screen saver are past - at least given current screen technologies. I don't use one on my computer. That's a shame, because of all the graphics power we have now that we would have killed for in 1988. I just bought a new LG OLED TV set, and that technology does have some burn-in issues. And sure enough, that TV has a screen saver. I was disappointed to see it was a fireworks display, not much more sophisticated than anything we had in the 1980s.

What we'd tapped into at Berkeley Systems was the idea that screen savers could be an end in and of themselves - that they could entertain and be a distraction. We partnered artists and coders to build little experiences that were engaging, fun, or interesting, making sure that things didn't just repeat on a loop. We called our attitude "aggressively stupid" - anything to entertain in this little medium."

Sleep Mode was made possible thanks to the generous support of: