The legacy of flying toasters

For today’s Fun Friday, we take a look back at the screensaver. Screen savers aren’t really used today very much. People use the term when they really mean wallpaper or screen background. But back in the 1990s, screen savers were the thing to have.

What were screen savers and why were they used?

In order to understand the screen saver phenomenon, you need to understand a little of the technology of the early days of computers. Today we take our large, flat monitors for granted. But, until about 20 years ago, monitors look liked like this:

Remember those? They were an evolution of the televisions of the day and they used large glass picture tubes to show the images generated by the computer. Computer monitors evolved quickly, but they couldn’t escape one of the main flaws of the tube monitor itself.

Tube monitors have a coating on the back of the screen that changes electrical energy to light. That’s a simplistic explanation, but it will do for this article. That coating wears out just a little bit every time light hits it for a protracted time. With a normal TV experience, this isn’t a problem because the whole tube wears out at the same time. The TV image gets dimmer and dimmer, and eventually it’s time for a new TV.

However, in computer monitors, there are areas that are lit more than others, all the time. Think of the taskbar or dock at the bottom of your screen. When these areas are always lit up in exactly the same way, that coating will wear unevenly. This leads to a “ghostly” image forming that is always visible even when it shouldn’t be.

The solution: the screen saver

The solution was to either turn the monitor off when it wasn’t used, or put something else up that wasn’t the same as what was usually there. At first this wasn’t built into computer operating systems. And that brings us to the subject of today’s Fun Friday article: the software known as “After Dark.”

After Dark was a program by Berkeley Systems. It did what screen savers do. After a user-selectable amount of time without any activity on the keyboard, it turned off the image on the screen and showed something else instead.

After Dark wasn’t the first screen saver program, but it was the one that really took it to the next level. Because, After Dark wasn’t just a way to turn off the screen. It was a way to do it with attitude. Instead of a blank screen you got a selection of different silly things happening to the screen.

Take a look at this video review:

You got lines, worms, and the most iconic of them all, the flying toaster. No one seemed quite willing to explain why there were flying toasters, but they were there.

Screen savers from 1991-present

After Dark kept evolving, adding themed versions and supporting more and more complex graphics. But in the end its success was short-lived, although its impact was not.

By my recollection, Windows 3.1 was the first PC operating system with a built-in screen saver. I may be wrong, but the internet doesn’t seem to disagree with me. As time went on, Windows got screen savers that were just as interesting, if not as wacky, as After Dark. Who among us didn’t use this one at some point?

The end of the screen saver era

By and large, LCD monitors don’t need screen savers. They’re not totally immune to “burn-in” but it comes much more slowly. I have seen an LCD monitor with burn-in, but it took literally six years of having the same image up on the screen.

As LCD monitors became more common in the early ’00s, screen savers went from necessity to curiosity. By the mid ’10s, most folks had stopped using them. They’re still there in Windows 10, and on Mac as well. Really, though, the screen saver’s day is over. It started with flying toasters, and it ended… with nothing.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.