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Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death.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

Tom Dempsey, the Toeless NFL Kicker Who Set a Field Goal Record

33ft/iStock via Getty Images
33ft/iStock via Getty Images

Things weren't looking good for the New Orleans Saints on the evening of November 8, 1970, during a televised game against the Detroit Lions at Tulane Stadium. Though Saints quarterback Billy Kilmer had managed to connect with receiver Al Dodd on a 17-yard pass that stopped the clock, New Orleans was still down 17-16 with just two seconds left in the game. Worse yet, they were on their own 37-yard line—leaving 63 yards between them and the end zone.

Saints head coach J.D. Roberts, who had only been hired the week before, huddled with offensive coordinator Don Heinrich to quickly consider their options. There weren’t any. Suddenly, kicker Tom Dempsey, who had joined the team the year before, materialized. “I can kick it,” Dempsey told Roberts.

Dempsey would later recall that he didn’t know exactly how far the ball had to travel or that it would be an NFL record if he nailed it. If he had, he said, maybe he would’ve gotten too nervous and shanked it. But kicking the ball was what Dempsey did, even though he was born with only half of a right foot.

Heinrich sighed. There was no other choice. “Tell Stumpy to get ready,” he said.

 

Dempsey was born on January 12, 1947, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and later moved with his family to California. As a student at San Dieguito High School in Encinitas, California, Dempsey appeared unbothered by the congenital defect that resulted in a partial right foot and four missing fingers on his right hand. Dempsey wrestled and ran track. In football, he used his burly frame—he would eventually be 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weigh 255 pounds—to clobber opposing players as an offensive lineman. When coaches wanted to send opponents flying, they called in Dempsey.

After high school, Dempsey went on to attend Palomar Junior College in San Marcos, California, where he played football as a defensive end. At one point, when the team was in need of a kicker, the coach asked his players to line up and do their best to send the ball in the air. None kicked harder or farther than Dempsey, who became the kicker for the team and performed while barefoot, wrapping the end of his foot in athletic tape.

Tom Dempsey's modified football shoe is pictured
Tom Dempsey's modified football shoe.
Bullock Texas State History Museum

Playing at Palomar prepared Dempsey for a dual role as both lineman and kicker. But his strength, which made him so formidable on the field, occasionally got him into trouble on the sidelines, and he would eventually be kicked off the Palomar team for punching one of his coaches. After the incident, Dempsey tried out for the Green Bay Packers but found the physicality of professional players a little too much for him to handle. Rather than get into on-field collisions as an offensive lineman, he decided to focus solely on the aptitude he seemed to have for kicking. He eventually earned a spot on the San Diego Chargers practice squad in 1968. There, head coach Sid Gillman decided to encourage his choice of position—with some modifications.

Gillman enlisted an orthopedist to help develop a special leather shoe for Dempsey to wear. The boot had a block of leather 1.75 inches thick at one end and was mostly flat. Instead of kicking it soccer-style, as most players do today, Dempsey was able to use his leg like a mallet and hammer the ball with a flat, blunt surface.

The shoe, which cost $200 to fabricate, came in handy when Dempsey joined the Saints in 1969. He made 22 out of 41 field goals his rookie year and found himself in the Pro Bowl. But the 1970 season was comparatively dismal, and the Saints were holding a 1-5-1 record when they met the Detroit Lions on that night in November.

With two seconds left, “Stumpy” (Dempsey found the nickname affectionate rather than offensive) trotted onto the field. At 63 yards, he would have to best the then-record set by Baltimore Colts kicker Bert Rechichar in 1953 by seven yards.

No one appeared to think this was within the realm of possibility—you could almost hear a chuckle in CBS commentator Don Criqui's voice when he announced that Dempsey would be attempting the feat. Even the Lions seemed apathetic, not overly concerned with attempting to smother the play.

The ball was snapped by Jackie Burkett and received by Joe Scarpati, who gave it a quarter-turn. Dempsey remembered advice once given to him by kicking legend Lou “The Toe” Groza: Keep your head down and follow through. He took a step toward the ball and swung his leg like a croquet mallet, smashing into the football with a force that those on or near the field compared to a loud bang or a cannon. It sailed 63 yards to the goal post, which at the time was positioned directly on the goal line, and just made it over the crossbar.

Below, the referee threw his hands in the air to indicate the kick was good, punctuating it with a little hop of excitement. Dempsey was swarmed by his teammates and coaches. Don Criqui’s attitude in the booth quickly switched from amusement to incredulity. The Saints had won, 19-17.

“I don’t believe this,” Criqui exclaimed.

Neither could fans. In an era before instant replay, ESPN, or YouTube, you either caught Dempsey’s game-winning play or you heard about it at work or school the next week. Owing to its fleeting existence in the moment, schoolyards and offices filled with stories about how Dempsey’s boot may have somehow been augmented with a steel plate or other modification to boost his kicking prowess.

No such thing occurred, though that didn’t stop criticism. Tex Schramm, an executive with the Dallas Cowboys and chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, thought the shoe was an unfair advantage that allowed Dempsey to smash the ball like a golf club hitting a dimpled target. In 1977, the NFL instituted the “Tom Dempsey Rule,” which mandates that anyone and everyone has to wear a shoe shaped like a full foot. There would be no more allowances for special orthopedic shapes.

Dempsey appeared to take it all in stride. Shortly after his victorious kick, he received a letter from President Richard Nixon congratulating him on his inspirational demonstration. Immediately after the game, police officers went in to congratulate him by handing him cases of Dixie beer. Dempsey's girlfriend (and future wife) Carlene recalled that he didn’t come home for days due to rampant partying. When he finally settled down, they got married.

 

Dempsey spent a total of 11 years in the NFL, playing for the Saints, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Los Angeles Rams, the Houston Oilers, and finally the Buffalo Bills. In total, he made 159 field goals out of 258 attempts. For the next several decades, he would work as a salesman in the oil industry and manage a car lot before retiring in 2008 and settling down back near New Orleans, where he lives today. Over the years, Dempsey has made several appearances at autograph shows, where he was regularly peppered with questions about the one kick that defined his career.

Almost as amazing as the kick was its attrition in the record books. While several other men managed to tie Dempsey’s record, it wasn’t until Matt Prater of the Denver Broncos kicked a 64-yard field goal on December 8, 2013, that it was finally broken—almost 43 years to the day. Some observers note that most of these notable field goals took place in Denver, where the air is thin and presumably more hospitable to kicking for distance. Dempsey managed it in New Orleans—and without toes.

Curiously, Dempsey’s legendary play was actually foreshadowed one year earlier. On October 5, 1969, he kicked a 55-yard field goal in Los Angeles. That was just one yard shy of the record he would obliterate the following year.

Super Bowl: When Tie-In Novelty Cereals Ruled the 1980s

Louise McLaren, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Louise McLaren, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The tidal wave of merchandising following the release of Star Wars in 1977 was a fundamental transformation in how pop culture could be monetized. Thousands of items, ranging from clothing to toys, were produced from dozens of licensees. Fans could wake up on Darth Vader bedsheets, brush their teeth with a Yoda toothbrush, and slip on a Chewbacca backpack before catching the school bus.

The lone exception to that escapist morning routine? Breakfast cereal. It wasn’t until 1984—seven years after the original Star Wars hit theaters—that fans could purchase C-3POs, a puffed-wheat breakfast concoction that featured the golden droid on boxes. The delay was the result of changing tastes in the realm of product licensing. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the major cereal companies figured out that people wanted to literally consume their entertainment.

 

Cereals have long relied on colorful characters as a way of marketing their wares. Tony the Tiger was introduced by Kellogg’s in 1951 and quickly became the solo mascot for Frosted Flakes after cohorts Katy the Kangaroo, Newt the Gnu, and Elmo the Elephant fell by the wayside. Store aisles were soon stocked with boxes bearing Toucan Sam (Fruit Loops); Snap, Crackle, and Pop (Rice Krispies); and the dubiously ranked Cap’n Crunch.

As the decades wore on, the characters became intergenerational, able to appeal to kids and adults who remembered them from their youth. But it was also hard to muscle in on the market with so many of those mascots dominating shelf space. It wasn’t until the 1980s that cereal makers took notice of census reports hinting at a growing population of kids under the age of 9 and began plotting ways to appeal to tiny, outstretched hands at grocery stores. Their solution was existing brand recognition. Why spend time and effort creating a new cereal mascot when they could effectively lease one with a built-in fan base?

General Mills, then and now one of the leading cereal manufacturers, owned toy company Kenner. Kenner, in turn, had a licensing deal with American Greetings, owners of the popular Strawberry Shortcake property. In September 1982, General Mills debuted a Strawberry Shortcake cereal, the first to be based on a licensed fictional character. To the great satisfaction of General Mills executives, it was a major success. Shortcake fans devoured it.

Quickly, General Mills pursued an E.T. cereal, based on the smash 1982 movie. Arriving in 1984, the company believed a sequel—which never materialized—would keep it flying off shelves. A Pac-Man cereal followed. When neither product managed to reach Shortcake-level success, General Mills stopped pursuing licenses in 1985. But that was hardly the end of tie-in corn puffs.

Ralston Purina, a conglomerate that counted both breakfast cereal and dog food among its offerings, was faced with only minimal market share when compared to the “Big Two” titans: General Mills and Kellogg’s. Because launching a brand-new cereal was such an expensive proposition—marketing costs could grow to $40 million during the first year alone—it made more sense for Ralston to capitalize on existing properties, where their expenditure might only be $10 to $12 million. Their first attempt was a sugary riff on Cabbage Patch Kids. Released in 1985—at the point in Cabbage Patch mania where adults were getting into physical altercations over the dolls—it sold well, and Ralston seemed to have found its niche.

 

The next few years would see a number of Ralston products hit stores. Cereals based on Donkey Kong, Spider-Man, Gremlins, Rainbow Brite, Barbie, Hot Wheels, and Batman made what would otherwise be generic cereals palatable to a youth demographic and had novelty beyond the brand associations. The company’s Nintendo Cereal System in 1989 had one box with two different bags of multi-colored cereal. Others, like Batman, came with super-sized prizes like a coin bank that was shrink-wrapped to the box. Never mind that many of the concoctions were almost identical—the Spider-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cereal had pieces resembling Ralston’s Chex cereal relabeled “spider webs” or “ninja nets.” Fans of the properties ate it up.

Owing to their status as a tie-in product, these cereals had one fatal flaw: They typically sold well for just 14 to 18 months, whereas Tony the Tiger could keep moving flakes for decades. But by the time one cereal began to decline, another was ready to take its place. If Ralston’s Jetsons grew stale on shelves, Bill and Ted's Excellent Cereal was ready to go. The company found its most enduring tie-in with its marshmallow-stuffed Ghostbusters cereal, which remained a bestseller for an incredible five years running. (Propped up by an animated series and a 1989 sequel, it kept the property visible. C-3POs, in contrast, suffered from a lack of any new Star Wars movies after 1983.)

Not everyone could make the premise work. Quaker’s Mr. T cereal bombed. Ralston’s own Prince of Thieves cereal, an attempt to capitalize on 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves movie, was victimized by contractual limitations. Star Kevin Costner refused to appear on the box, diminishing the association.

 

Ralston continued the tie-ins into the 1990s, with the Family Matters-endorsed Urkel-Os joining cereals based on The Addams Family, Batman Returns, and others, usually paying a 3 to 5 percent royalty on each box sold to the licensors. While it made Ralston profitable, it also made them appealing for a buyout. To cement their status as cereal king, General Mills wound up buying Ralston in 1996 for $570 million. The deal largely put an end to the licensing promotions.

Today, there’s nostalgia for these edible gimmicks. Funko, the company behind the Pop! vinyl figures, maintains a line of themed cereals based on Pac-Man and less obvious properties like The Golden Girls. Unopened boxes of Batman cereal pop up on eBay from time to time. Some cereal loyalists even try to replicate the flavors, mixing Lucky Charms and Crispix to mimic the distinctively chalky taste of Spider-Man cereal. But for the most part, the industry has fallen back on the same standbys that were popular 70 years ago.

As one brand executive put it: Kellogg’s doesn’t need the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when they’ve got Corn Flakes.

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