Why computer screens needed saving 25 years ago

Midday technology correspondent Tom Keenan tells host Kevin Newman about why screensavers were necessary and what was news in screensaver trends.

Screen savers were no longer necessary but had become a form of social expression

Tom Keenan, Midday's technology correspondent, explains why screensavers exist in 1993. 1:39

A burned-in image on a computer monitor was a real problem in the early years of home computing.

"I have actually seen computer screens with words burned into them," Tom Keenan, technology correspondent for CBC-TV's Midday, told host Kevin Newman on Oct. 12, 1993. "This used to be a real problem with the old green screens."

And so was born the screen saver.

The first screen savers were primitive: a blank screen would appear, creating a worse problem than it purported to solve.

"People were having heart attacks because they go out to the bathroom and they come back and six hours' work would be lost," explained Keenan. "So somebody said, 'there's gotta be a better way.'"   

It was 'mesmerizing'

The better way took the form of colourful exploding fireworks, or an ever-changing set of geometric lines.

Students in Tom Keenan's computer class designed this custom screensaver. (CBC Archives/Midday)

"I wondered if it might be hypnotizing, in a way," said Newman.

"I think some people might find it mesmerizing," agreed Keenan. "I've seen whole rows of computers lined up, doing the fireworks together."

Keenan, a computer science instructor, said his students had programmed a more interesting alternative: words on a screen reading "Shad '93 is the BEST!!!!!" (Shad '93 was the name of their computer course.)

Colourful fireworks were just the beginning, says technology correspondent Tom Keenan. 2:49

Even though monitor technology had since improved — meaning a burned-in image was no longer a problem — the solution persisted.  

A popular screensaver from 1993 depicted the cartoon character Opus the penguin shooting flying toasters. It was a send-up of another popular screensaver. (CBC Archives/Midday)

A popular screen saver motif pictured a flock of silver toasters with wings flying in formation across the screen.

It was so well-known, in fact, that cartoonist Berkeley Breathed released an animated parody version in which the hero of his comic strip Bloom County, a penguin named Opus, brought down the toasters with a shotgun.

But before Keenan could show viewers the Opus screen saver, he had to prepare it on his computer.

"This is the control panel ... screen savers have gotten so sophisticated that you need control panels for them, and you can set all kinds of options." Keenan ​said. "Takes about 10 or 15 seconds to set up."

While they waited, Keenan explained that the Opus screen saver had been the subject of a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

A medium for self-expression

"Is this really a fad? Is this really taking off?" asked Newman.

"People have this innate desire to customize their workplace," said Keenan.

When everyone in the office had an IBM PS/2 running WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3, he said, screen savers were a way to assert one's identity.

"My own personal belief is that we've long since passed the need for them technologically," said Keenan. "Basically they're fulfilling a social need now."

Almost as an afterthought, Keenan noted that there were screen savers with password protection.

"If you think about it, the kind of information that's sitting on people's personal computers might be very serious if that was compromised." 

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