Screensavers began not as the animated artworks we love today, but as practical tools. They served one primary purpose: to prevent image burn-in on CRT monitors. When the same image displayed on a screen for too long, the risk of that image becoming permanently etched into the display was high. Screensavers were the solution, filling screens with moving patterns or blanking them to black when not in use.
Microsoft’s Windows 3.0 was the first version of Windows to include screensavers, transforming the computer into a canvas for creativity when idle. This marked one of the first instances screensavers transitioning from a necessity to a form of digital decor.
Over time, screensavers evolved into complex and captivating displays. They turned idle screens into fish tanks, starry nights, or mazes. With each new iteration of Windows, from the humble beginnings of Windows 3.0 to the more sophisticated Windows 98 and beyond, screensavers became a showcase of the era’s programming capabilities and graphic design.
Today, with modern LED displays, the practical need for screensavers is all but gone, but their legacy endures. They stand as a testament to the ingenuity that defined early software design, capturing the playful spirit of the burgeoning digital age.
Let’s walk through a few of my favorites.
Mystify came with Windows 3.0 as one of Windows’ first screensavers, setting a benchmark for simple yet engaging screen protection. Basic lines crisscrossed and expanded, drawing users into a calm but ever-changing geometric display. Its design was practical, needing only simple math to create complex patterns, and it ran smoothly even on the less powerful PCs of the early ’90s.
Starfield Simulation captured the public’s interest with its simple yet captivating depiction of a spaceship’s view of a starry expanse, tapping into the early Windows users’ love for science fiction and the mysteries of space.
Its graphic of white dots streaming over a black screen to create the illusion of moving through the stars offered users a relaxing break without complex visuals. This screensaver became popular for its ability to blend a futuristic feel with ease of use, becoming a nostalgic classic for its hypnotic presence on many Windows desktops.
Windows’ 3D Maze screensaver dove into the nascent world of three-dimensional graphics powered by OpenGL. Debuting in Windows 95, 3D Maze offered users a new perspective—literally—with its first-person navigation through a maze of red brick walls, wooden floors, and ceiling tiles, each randomly generated to ensure a unique experience every time. The left-hand rule made every maze solvable, preventing loops and dead ends.
Textures started with standard patterns but grew to include user-customizable options and quirky elements like floating logos and a rat sprite that became synonymous with the screensaver’s charm. Its design was a signature of the ’90s computing culture.
Popular from Windows 95 through to Windows XP, Windows’ 3D Pipes screensaver transformed idle screens into dynamic displays of ever-expanding pipelines. The screensaver’s true appeal lay in its simplicity and occasional surprises. For instance, configured with multiple, traditional-style pipes and mixed joint types, the screensaver would sometimes interject a Utah teapot—a nod to computer graphics history—as a playful joint in the maze of pipes.
Another easter egg was the candy cane texture—an undocumented feature in Windows 2000 and XP that dressed the pipes in festive red and white, giving a seasonal twist to the year-round screensaver.
Employing the basic principles of 3D shape rendering, 3D Pipes illustrated the early capabilities of personal computers to handle real-time graphics with ease.
Mystery wrapped users in an aura of intrigue as it showcased a haunted house. As the center of the screensaver’s action, the house stood against a night sky, with a full moon steadily crossing above. Within the mansion, random windows lit up, unveiling different eerie scenes. These animations brought the stillness of the house to life, catching viewers’ attention with unpredictable activity.
With a simple yet captivating design, Flying Windows animated the familiar Windows logo, sending it soaring across the computer screen. This screensaver is nostalgic because it was one of Windows’ first screensavers and most widely used.
After Dark carved out its niche in screensaver history with Flying Toasters, an idea that sparked during Jack Eastman’s late-night programming at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. Eastman simply walked into his kitchen, thought of “Flying Toasters,” and went back to code the idea into existence.
Created alongside Patrick Beard, this screensaver suite initially tackled the limitations of Macintosh systems without native screensaver support. Their solution—modular programming and system monitoring via assembly language—paved the way for After Dark’s success. The suite, once a Mac-exclusive, extended to Windows through a collaboration with Software Dynamics, growing into an interactive platform that let users design and potentially publish their own modules.
The Flying Toasters became a hallmark of After Dark—a fun blend of retro design, interactive humor and irreverence. These winged toasters gliding over a screen with customizable toast doneness captured imaginations and prompted a merchandise line. However, with the advent of the internet, the allure of paid screensavers diminished. Despite this, the screensaver’s influence endured, transcending its original utility to become a cultural touchstone of ’90s software ingenuity. After Dark’s open-ended design and user community involvement exemplified the potential of software to engage and connect with its users beyond mere functionality.
Johnny Castaway screensaver was a departure from traditional static screensavers. It presented a small, animated story of a man marooned on a tiny desert island. Johnny, the protagonist, filled the screen with his ongoing quest for rescue and daily survival antics. With every moment, the screensaver offered new surprises, from building sandcastles to fishing, making each viewing a unique experience.
The designers programmed Johnny with a series of events that unfolded differently each time, keeping the user’s interest piqued. The variety in Johnny’s actions served not just to entertain but also to give a glimpse into his fictional life, making him an endearing digital companion.
Screensavers were more than just pixelated screen protectors. They turned our utilitarians machines into canvases for creativity. They were digital companions that shared our late nights and workdays with us, injecting moments of unexpected delight into our routine. By adding character to computers, screensavers made technology approachable and relatable, endearing these machines to their users.