Those iconic ’90s Windows screensavers had a purpose

They weren't just trippy. They actually saved screens.
Andrew Paul Avatar
Microsoft Windows 3D tubes screensaver screenshot
The original 3D tubes screensaver was meant to showcase OpenGL for Windows. YouTube

There was a time when screensavers truly saved screens. If you used any Windows computer in the 1990’s or are simply a fan of digital nostalgia, then you likely remember a PC’s suite of instantly recognizable idle modes—customizable 3D flying text or objects, infinite labyrinths, and expanding networks of complex pipes. These animation screens weren’t intended as pointless but effective distractions—they actually served a real purpose. And in the case of the original Windows options like 3D pipes, they did more than just protect computer screens.

Why did screens need saving?

During the era of bulky PCs and Macintosh desktops, each cathode ray tube (CRT) computer monitor consisted of a hefty case containing an electron gun that fired particles at a pixelated phosphorescent screen to make them glow. With the pixels illuminated, magnets controlled the gun’s back-and-forth movements to create text and images. Although similar to everyday CRT television sets, people used computer monitors in very different ways. Typing kept much of the computer screen static, for example, while simply reading or reviewing information might reduce screen movement to a complete standstill. But these key differences posed a fatal problem—leave an electron gun firing too long in a single position, and the energy would “burn-in” the phosphors to permanently scar them with faint afterimages. To save (or at least delay) screens this fate, computer designers created screensavers.

The first screensaver software to debut in 1983 kept things simple by switching a user’s monitor to all black, much like many of today’s sleep mode settings. But it wasn’t long until both companies and individuals got creative with it. By the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, screensaver culture offered every visual idle mode imaginable, from Apple’s flying toasters to colorful ever-shifting psychedelic patterns.

The iconic Windows screensavers, however, were apparently the result of an internal company competition and good timing. According to a June 11 blog post from longtime Microsoft employee Raymond Chen, developers in 1994 were worried about their upcoming release of the Windows NT 3.5 operating system—not because it wasn’t ready, but because they didn’t know how to ensure users understood its full capabilities. In particular, Chen and his colleagues wanted to hype the new integration of OpenGL, a cross-language, cross-platform application programming interface (API) designed to create both 2D- and 3D-renderings. At the same time, they wanted to advertise the feature without risking kneecapping the new OS right out the gate—a much bigger and more difficult problem in an era before widespread internet access and auto-updates.

“That’s when it occurred to him to use a screen saver [sic],” Chen recounts. “This provided a point of visibility to the user, and it was relatively low risk, because if there was a problem, they could just tell users, ‘Sorry, don’t use that screensaver.’”

The ‘3D pipes’ pipeline

Chen’s friend then announced a design contest for the OpenGL team in which everyone built their own screensaver. After voting on the favorite option, the new screensaver would then be uploaded onto the Windows NT rollout. Before they could vote, however, Windows marketing learned of the project.

“By a stroke of luck, one of the people to see these new screen savers was a member of the marketing team who tried them out the night before an already-scheduled visit in New York City with a major computer industry magazine,” Chen writes. “He loved them and wrote back, ‘You can call off the vote. We’re adding all of them to the product!’”

The rest is screensaver history. PC users’ eyes would glaze over watching the oddly hypnotic animations for years, ironically prolonging the lifespans for many of their monitors in the process. One in particularly captured users’ attention, however—3D pipes, which constantly generated colorful networks of increasingly intricate tubes before erasing to start again.

But all good things come to an end, including screensavers—the release of Windows XP Service Pack 3 in 2009 marked the last time the company’s OS would come equipped with Chen’s contest designs. Over time, the introduction of idle and sleep modes—not to mention society’s near-constant screen usage across computers, laptops, and smartphones—made most screensavers unnecessary.

As Gizmodo noted back in 2021, however, the legacy lives on thanks to a fan’s free browser recreation of the 3D tubes screensaver. Now, if only this same kind of love and attention can be shown for the one true best screensaver of all time: the classic starfield.