Have you ever typed “answer to life, the universe, and everything” into Google? In a nod to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Google returns “42” as a calculator result. Or perhaps you’ve noticed a white X in front of a police call box on the Google map of Earl’s Court in London. Click on that X, and you’ll be transported inside the TARDIS from Doctor Who.
These little surprises keep technology fun and give programmers a creative outlet. In 1979, Atari inadvertently sent players on the first technology “Easter egg” hunt. A programmer named Warren Robinett was upset because his name wouldn’t be listed in the credits for the game Adventure, so he built a special message into the game visible only to those players who performed certain activities in a catacomb. The message was simple: “Created by Robinett.”
As Robinett said in this 2017 interview, it was a “devious and sneaky way to get [his] name on the screen.” By the time Atari learned about Robinett’s prank, it was too late. Atari players were already on the “hunt” for this secret message and others. In honor of the hunt, the term “Easter egg” came to mean any fun secret hidden in technology.
In honor of the “hunt” for fun secrets hidden in technology by developers and searched for by users, the term “Easter egg” was created to describe these secrets.
Classic Microsoft Easter eggs
Although Microsoft has largely abandoned Easter eggs due to stricter government restrictions on software, early versions of Windows and Excel featured Easter eggs. In Windows 3.1, if you navigated to “About Program Manager” under Help and then clicked OK, you would eventually see tiny graphics of Bill Gates and other luminaries who worked on the project. You could also see a graphic of the Microsoft Bear, a teddy bear that served as a mascot of sorts for programmers.
In Excel 95, if you selected cell B95, then held down [Ctrl] [Shift] while clicking on the Tech Support button, a “room” would open, featuring pictures of the Excel development team. Later versions of Excel included a flight simulator and an auto racing game as Easter Eggs. Remember — this was before Facebook, so it was much harder to waste time at work, making these Easter eggs the digital equivalent of a Cadbury.
Photo: Hoover Tung / Shutterstock