'Oregon Trail' celebrates 50 years with popular game's origin story

The popular educational game debuted in classrooms on Dec. 3, 1971

Photo of Angela Mulka
Thanks to The Internet Archive, you can play an early version on your desktop.

Thanks to The Internet Archive, you can play an early version on your desktop.

Screenshot/Internet Archive

An "internationally known educational game," The Oregon Trail, turns 50 today and its creators are celebrating the anniversary with the game's origin story beginning in Minnesota.

Why it matters:

The Oregon Trail revolutionized personal computing. It eventually became a computer game that was used widely in classrooms across the country in the 1990s, impacting the lives of millions of students with 65 million copies sold, though, its creators never saw a dime, reports The 74.

"It was 1971 and Intel had just put out its first microprocessor," reads an article published by Carleton College where the game's three creators attended. "Enter three Carls onto the scene: Don Rawitsch ’72, Bill Heinemann ’72 and Paul Dillenberger ’72 were busy finishing their finals project – what would become an internationally known educational game – The Oregon Trail."

The three were living in an apartment attending University and student teaching in Minneapolis Public Schools.

Heinemann says Rawitsch had come up with a board game to teach his students about the realities of pioneer life on the Oregon Trail (the goal of the game was to lead a wagon train from Missouri to Oregon in the 1840s) when Heinneman realized that would be the perfect application for a computer program, per reporting by Fox 9 News.

According to Fox 9 News, the game was created on a school computer, which in 1971 was essentially a teletype machine with no screen or graphics, connected to a mainframe by a telephone modem. Heinemann wrote down the code and Dillenberger entered it in the computer that would print a question on a roll of paper for the player to type in an answer.

And fifty years ago, on Dec. 3, 1971, The Oregon Trail debuted in Rawitsch's class. The rest was history.

According to Carleton College, The Oregon Trail quickly became the most popular program on the Minneapolis Public Schools computer network.

The game expanded statewide after Rawitsch brought the code with him to developers for the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium a couple of years later where it was sold in an educational software bundle to schools.

Today, The Oregon Trail is everywhere from card games to iPhones. It was inducted into the Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016, according to Fox 9 News.

Thanks to The Internet Archive, you can play an early version on your desktop.

But while the game is still played in different versions today, its original creators never have made money from the original idea and the code's success.

"It just wasn't meant to be and the three of us are OK with that," Dillenberger told Fox 9 News. "I suppose I could have owned an island somewhere. We're happy to have contributed to something."

For more on the creators of the Oregon Trail game, watch the FOX9 story and PBS documentary or read the Voice article.