The origin of 3D Pipes, Windows' best screensaver

Raymond Chen talks teapots, and a fully engaged marketing team

Archaeologic Microsoft veteran Raymond Chen has shared the origin story behind the Windows 3D Pipes screensaver.

Windows 3D Pipes screensaver

Windows 3D Pipes screensaver – Pic: Richard Speed

Readers of a particular vintage might remember staring at the maze of pipes generated by the screensaver in early versions of Windows.

According to Chen, the screensaver's origins lie in the decision to add OpenGL to Windows NT 3.5, and a contest to show off the technology without borking the operating system.

The Windows OpenGL team was in a bit of a quandary. The code was all there, but users would never see it. Chen explained: "They had successfully implemented the API with hardware acceleration, but had nothing to show it off. Windows NT 3.5 was very close to shipping, replete with OpenGL support, but there was nothing in the product that let the user know that this feature even existed."

This writer remembers Windows NT 3.5 and 3.51 as being rock-solid (certainly when compared to what would come later), and the challenge was how to showcase the feature without introducing instability to the operating system.

Chen again: "That's when it occurred to him [a Windows OpenGL team member] to use a screensaver. 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'."

After all, there was little to no chance of easily pushing out an update if something broke – widespread internet access and auto-updating operating systems had yet to really become a thing. However, a screensaver – little more than an application – could be safely ignored if something went wrong.

But what should this magical OpenGL screensaver look like? A contest was run, generating the 3D Text screensaver, 3D Maze, 3D Flying Objects, and, of course, 3D Pipes.

A vote was offered to the entire Windows NT development team to select which entry should be added to the NT image.

Chen wrote: "By a stroke of luck, one of the people to see these new screensavers 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.

"He loved them and wrote back, 'You can call off the vote. We’re adding all of them to the product!'"

And so it was that an email from marketing resulted in the 3D screensavers that leave so many of today's users pining for simpler days.

3D Text lingers on – probably so someone within Microsoft can make the letters "AI" appear on screen – but others were unceremoniously ditched in later versions of Windows. The loss of 3D Pipes was undoubtedly one of the greatest sins from the era of Windows Vista.

Chen noted that a reconstruction of the original 3D Pipes screensaver can now be found online, and we were delighted to find that not only would it draw the occasional teapot among the pipework, but the candy cane text was also fully supported.

We also tried to fire up the screensaver in Windows 95 via an emulator and then a virtual machine. Both looked solid. Just like old times. ®

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