This Is How One of the Most Famous Windows Screensavers, the Hypnotic Network of Moving 3D Pipes, Was Born

  • This screensaver's history co-stars OpenGL.

  • A GitHub project allows us to go back in time and enjoy 3D Pipes.

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If you’ve been using computers for a few years, you may recognize the image above. The pipe screensaver was a familiar sight in several versions of Windows, serving to extend the lifespan of monitors in homes and offices. While now considered a thing of the past, new details about its origins have recently come to light, and they’re quite intriguing.

The development teams at Microsoft had an interesting working dynamic. Some solutions that were initially meant to be temporary ended up becoming permanent. Others started as an auxiliary element of a more important feature but eventually became very memorable in their own right. Windows 3D Pipes falls into the latter category.

A Screensaver as OpenGL’s Best Ally

Raymond Chen, author of The Old New Thing blog about Windows development, recently shared a story about a friend who worked on a Windows NT team and told him about how the Windows 3D Pipes came to be. The Windows NT team–as a side note, Windows NT marked a significant milestone in Microsoft’s operating system development–was also working on adding OpenGL support, which promised even more improvements.

Chen’s friend had the idea to promote OpenGL by creating a screensaver for the upcoming release of Windows NT. To choose the screensaver to include in the system, this person organized a contest and informed the team that the selection would be made through a vote.

Windows NT

After a few days, the team had submitted screensavers such as 3D Text, 3D Maze, 3D Flying Objects, and 3D Pipes. Chen’s friend told the Microsoft employees participating in the contest how to install the screensavers and vote for their favorite. Before the contest ended, a member of the marketing team tried out the screensavers and was impressed with all of them.

“You can call off the vote. We’re adding all of them to the product,” the member of the marketing team said, according to Chen. As such, Windows NT 3.5 was released to the public in 1994 with 3D Pipes. The screensaver remained in Microsoft’s operating system until Windows XP, released in 2001. Windows Vista, introduced in 2007, finally replaced the old screensavers with more modern ones.

If you’d like to revisit the past, this GitHub page allows you to immerse yourself in 3D Pipes in full screen on any device.

Image | Microsoft

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