The origin story of the Windows 3D Pipes screen saver

Raymond Chen

Gizmodo calls it “the best screensaver of all time.” They’re referring to the Windows 3D Pipes screensaver, a mesmerizing network of pipes constructed in 3D before your very eyes. How did this iconic screen saver come to be?

One of my old friends told me how he got 3D Pipes added to Windows.

At the time, he was on the Windows OpenGL team. 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 with OpenGL support, but there was nothing in the product that let the user know that this feature even existed. He had to find a way to advertise the feature without risking product stability.

That’s when it occurred to him to use a screen saver. 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 screen saver.” (This was in the days before widespread Internet access, and long before it became commonplace for operating systems to auto-update.)

He announced a team-wide screen saver writing contest: Build your best screen saver, and the one that gets the most votes will be added to Windows NT.

The Windows OpenGL team took the contest to heart, and it wasn’t long before they had written 3D Text, 3D Maze, 3D Flying Objects, and, of course, 3D Pipes. He sent email to the entire Windows NT development team with instructions on how to install these new screen savers and where to send in their votes.

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

And with that one piece of email, 3D Pipes and all the other 3D screen savers got added to Windows.

As the Gizmodo article notes, you can now run a reconstruction of the 3D Pipes screen saver right in your Web browser. Enjoy the nostalgia.

19 comments

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  • Shawn CicoriaMicrosoft employee 0

    These were mesmerizing, but quite often IT folks would enable these on Windows Servers, and they would essentially “bring down the system.” See, they were CPU intensive and would take a tax on the system essentially stealing CPU time away from the business application running. This was when I had an ISV platform for Securities Finance and at SunGard Securities Finance.

    I can recall the first time getting a call on this – and back then things were remote, etc. sometimes using PCAnywhere – and then I saw 3D Pipes running. Just told them to turn it off – and done.

    From that point forward the first question asked of our customers was “are you running any screen savers?”

  • Ognian Chernokozhev 0

    I loved the 3D Text screen saver – I would set the font to Wingdings, the size to very large, and use the character ‘N’ that showed as a skull and crossbones – and I had a cool pirate desktop.

  • Shawn Eary 0

    Strangely, IMO legacy versions of OpenGL often seem to perform better and with fewer bugs in MS Windows that legacy versions of DirectX. I don’t know about Vulkan vs DX12 though, I think that might be more of a draw. The world might be better off if Microsoft completely ditched DirectX and only provided decent legacy support going forward…

    • Danielix Klimax 0

      1) Strongly dependent on IGD vendor.
      2) Old DirectX (<8) is emulated and quality depends partially on GPU vendor.
      3) Khronos is still dysfunctional mess, OpenGL is extension hell and was in dev hell for long time, so your assertion is wrong on ALL levels (from POV of Microsoft and us users) Sorry, but I don't want your "OpenGL-only" world. It would be hell.

  • Alan McFarlane 1

    One of my colleagues in our network-focused troubleshooting team was called out to look at a client’s system. Frequently the client-server app hosted on a particular server would fail.

    He spent an age waiting for the problem to occur. It didn’t, when he was at the server… I’m sure you can see what’s coming!

    He finally realised it was the 3D Pipes screensaver that was causing the issue. Him waking the server prevented the issue from occurring.

    I can’t remember of it was just a CPU load issue or something else.

    • Matt Stevens · Edited 1

      Came here for this comment.

      When NT 3.5 launched I was working for a small client/server development house. The company was an early Microsoft Solution Provider in the UK and were transitioning from LanMan/Sybase to NT/MSSQL. My role was largely running the in house IT but I was often farmed out to install infrastructure and fault find network problems on client sites.

      NT 3.5 launches, I upgrade the inhouse servers from 3.1 and it all goes very smoothly. As a former Netware guy I was not in the habit of poking around in the server console. Shortly after we get a call from a client at a chemical plant. The shiny new Lab Management system they bought from us keeps going down randomly and the IT department has run out of ideas. A site visit is arranged and sure enough I find the SQL Server stops responding after a while but I can’t find anything wrong. I get the bright idea of connecting Perfmon from a workstation and after a few minutes the CPU tops out. A glance through the window into the comms room and there it is, 3D pipes starting to fill the screen. Thirty minutes after arriving on site, my work is done. The client was pleased I found the issue so quickly but not so pleased about the bill for the flight, the hire car and a day spent travelling – The site was in the middle of nowhere t’up North.

      This was the start of what became a regular exchange for years to come.
      “The server has stopped working.”
      “Has anyone changed the screen saver?”
      “No!”
      “Are you sure someone hasn’t set Pipes or one of the other 3D screen savers?”
      “Err…”
      “Well reset the screen saver and give me a call should the problem reoccur.”

      …And then there was the split protocol network stack.
      …And the 3.51 minor version upgrade that enforced a 10 user limit on Workstation for the first time.

      I miss those days.

    • Simon Farnsworth 2

      When I heard that story, one of the details was that the server had a wimpy graphics card (certainly no 3D acceleration)., and thus it was a straight CPU load issue – without the screensaver, nothing hit time-outs, with the screensaver running, some things hit timeouts.

  • Georg Rottensteiner · Edited 0

    I love that the screensaver still works nicely in Windows 10 🙂

    A question, with Win 3.x (also the Win 9x line?) I remember screensavers having a max. allowed size of 64kB. The 3d Pipes screensaver I downloaded (hopefully not from a shady site) comes with 610.304 bytes.
    When was that size limit lifted? With the NT line?

    I recall doing a lot of advertising screensavers back in the time, and basically worked around the limit by having a starter saver which in turn would call the actual screensaver.

    • Ivan Kljajic 0

      Statically linked gl?

    • Raymond ChenMicrosoft employee Author 0

      I see no explicit size check for screen savers in Windows 3.1 or Windows 95.

      • Georg Rottensteiner · Edited 0

        Weird, my memory must be getting flakey. It was not in Win95 if I recall right, we did use 32bit screen savers there. Maybe a 16bit remnant.

        Thanks for checking though!

  • Nick 2

    Delighted to see that the browser-based pipes remembered to include the occasional teapot joint. Always enjoyed that easter egg.

    • Neil Rashbrook 1

      I was wondering about this, but I wasn’t prepared to wait and see. Thanks for letting us know!

  • Sigge Mannen 0

    It’s refreshing to read about an enthusiastic executive that made sure the fancy stuff stayed in. My favourite less-enthusiastic exec stories is the segmenting one (Fat-system on a plane) and the one with white paper, wizards and failed demo setup

  • Lappan Sommer 3

    That web reproduction is the most bracing slap of Moore’s Law that I’ve felt for a while: that something that our high-end server laboured over back in 1997 (fans whirring away the hundreds of watts of heat) is now running far better on my mid-range phone *and* smoothly rotates and zooms into the bargain…

    If I’d stopped to think about it it would have been obvious that this would be so, but I doubt I’ve thought at all about “pipes” in two decades, so it’s the same shock as seeing friends’ kids a decade later: how did you get so big!? (how did I get so old…)

    • Ray Koopa · Edited 0

      It makes me wonder if rotation was even technically possible in the original screen saver – for performance reasons, it might’ve only kept the depth buffer but not the vertices / redraw the whole thing after each pipe segment.

  • Ian Boyd 1

    I’m old enough to remember when the Windows NT team fought to keep GDI/OpenGL out of their pure, clean, beautiful, kernel (kinda like “AFD.sys”). And with Windows NT 4 they relented and moved it to the kernel for performance.

    But there’s few who remember that time.

    Similar to how most PC users don’t realize that Vista moved video card drivers into user-space; because buggy video card drivers loved to crash Windows XP.

    • Lappan Sommer 0

      One morning in 1993 my boss came in with a copy of “Inside Windows NT” and we all read it with excitement, finally a Microsoft OS done right, right from the ground up, like a university course come to life. Processes communicating by messages, strict isolation, ACLs *everywhere*, etc.

      Sure when Win95 came out it was prettier, and ran games, and could be installed on the kind of PC that our Lords and Masters were prepared to pay for. But the quid pro quo was crashes, lots of crashes. So the sense of heresy was palpable when 4.0 tore down those barricades, only a little alleviated by “Space Cadet” pinball.

      • Ian Boyd · Edited 0

        When I first installed Windows NT 3.1 (from Windows 3.1) I was stunned at the raw power that suddenly seemed to be oozing from my 386.

        – the mouse cursor was so smooth, and fast! Today we’d call it a “hardware cursor”.
        – you can drag around entire windows as fast as you want, and they stay absolutely glued to the mouse; while letting you see the window contents! (“full-screen dragging”)
        – you run an application from Program Manager or File Manager, and the mouse cursor instantly changes to an arrow with a little teeny hour-glass (what today we’d call `IDC_APPSTARTING`) to let you know its launching the application in the background – but that Windows itself is still responsive.

        Of course I didn’t know any of this technical stuff at the time. I was just being busy in university, and got ahold of Windows NT.

        After reading Raymond’s blog for years, i certainly now appreciate all the technical innovation (and blood, sweat, and tears) that went into making Windows 3.1 as good as it was (32-bit, protected mode, pre-emtively multi-tasking kernel). But once you could up the mimium specs, and break free of the legacy appcompat, the power of the 80386 really got to shine.

        I know IBM insisted that NT OS/2 support the 286, because the PS/2 was going to showcase the 286. Meanwhile Microsoft realized that the 286 was brain-dead, and wanted the 386 to be the minimum requirement – which made sense since the 386 would be commonplace by the time NT OS/2 launched. But IBM wasn’t having any of it. Steve Balmer talked about how during one of his retreats, Bill realized this was a huge problem, and that Microsoft had to go their own way with their own NT OS/2. “We knew they wouldn’t be happy about it, but we told them about it.”

        Man that was the right decision.

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