CD-ROMs were the training wheels for the internet, but no one remembers them now

Forgotten ‘infotainment’ software finds a new home at the Computer History Museum—here’s why you should care

CD-ROMs were the training wheels for the internet
Credit: Fredric Paul

Believe it or not, back in the 1990s, a lot of people thought CD-ROMs were going to the change the world.

I was one of them. I was absolutely convinced that titles like Total Distortion, The Daedalus Encounter, Xplora 1: Peter Gabriel’s Secret World and Charlton Heston’s The Bible were going to redefine entertainment and information retrieval.

We were wrong, of course, and with the rise of the World Wide Web, most people have now long forgotten those shiny disks that first promised to bring sound and video to personal computers, turning PCs from utilitarian spreadsheet jockeys into centers of learning and entertainment—what some of us used to call “infotainment.” (Yeah, I cringe when I hear it now, too.)

But I never forgot, and neither did the folks at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. So, I was thrilled to donate hundreds of CD-ROM titles to the museum’s collection and talk to curator Chris Garcia—who specializes computer graphics, music, games and art—about the historical importance of this vintage software. 

Where do CD-ROMs come from?

But before we get there, the obvious question is how does one happen to come into possession of hundreds of CD-ROM games, simulations, interactive music discs, reference titles, art projects and kids’ games and interactive storybooks. 

Simple really.

I was editor in chief of a magazine (yes, a paper magazine, remember them?) called Electronic Entertainment (published by IDG, which also publishes Network World). We were dedicated to covering this new and exciting phenomenon that was bringing digital storytelling and experimentation to computers in ways designed to be accessible to mainstream consumers, not just gamers and computer hobbyists. (We even created our own sample CD-ROMs so readers could try the titles they were reading about.)

For the first time, big time creative people—and even celebrities—were getting involved in computer projects. People ranging from Star Trek actors to Roger McGuinn to Quincy Jones to Tia Carrera were working on CD-ROMs—though you won’t always find these projects on their resumes. Electronic Entertainment magazine (E2) launched the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), which still exists, though it now focuses exclusively on the gaming industry.

Because our job included reviewing as many CD-ROM titles as possible, we were practically swimming in these discs, often working with multiple copies from companies who didn’t want them back. Sometimes, the companies weren’t even around when we tried to give them back.

You see, a dirty little secret is that the vast majority of these discs didn’t sell very well. Garcia calls them an “attempt to bring stuff to computers that didn't work out well, even at the time. The methodologies were not very well worked out.”

Distribution was spotty, compatibility with any given computer was iffy, and quality was widely variable. And prices were high, easily topping $50 or more in 1990s dollars (worth almost $80 today). So while there were a few big hit games like Myst, many other titles sold in the single digits. (I know; I saw the sales figures.) Not surprisingly, many of the companies creating these disks didn’t last long.

As we approached Y2K, the rise of DVD technology—which held mo’ better video and data—along with the exploding popularity of the internet and online services like AOL, pretty much wiped out CD-ROMs for everything except games.

20 years on the shelf

As the industry melted away, I kept copies of as many titles as I could—even if I wasn’t sure exactly why. They’ve been sitting on a bookshelf in my home office for two decades, and over time it became very clear that I was never going to do anything with them. For one thing, they ran on DOS and early versions of Windows and the Mac, and mostly likely they wouldn’t play on modern machines.

When I realized that none of my current computers had a CD-ROM or DVD player, I knew it was time for them to go.

But where?

Who wants 20-year-old edutainment software that may no longer work when the internet is around? There is a market on eBay, but it seemed pretty small and fractured. Fortunately, former PC World editor in chief Harry McCracken stepped in to save the day. Harry put me in touch with the Computer History Museum, and after months of back-and-forth negotiations, they recently accepted the entire collection!

According Garcia, “Edutainment is a significant part of the timeframe of the 1990s, and the museum didn't have it well represented in its collection.”

While my favorites from the era include Peter Gabriel’s eXplora 1, music/game mashups like Total Distortion, literary projects from a company called Voyager, and oddball efforts like HellCab and 9, Garcia was especially interested in titles like I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, based on a famous Harlan Ellisonscience fiction story, as well as the Marilyn Monroe Files.

Garcia, who’s been at the Computer History Museum for 17 years and got his start working at the Smithsonian, has a personal interest in the “eyewitness series” of Civil War CD-ROMs and called the Penthouse and Playboy discs in the collection a “hugely important area that often gets overlooked.”

A future for CD-ROM infotainment?

Garcia also surprised me with news that a few folks are working to give the CD-ROM experience new life through the internet. He cited Theresa Duffy’s beautiful 1995 game for preteen girls called Chop Suey, which an art group has translated to run online.

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen to the discs I donated, which will become part of the museum’s archives in Fremont, California. Garcia said the museum may eventually use them for other projects, including blogs and other publications about the period. I’m hoping some of it will get used in the museum’s upcoming Make Software exhibit, intended to demystify how software is made and how it’s changing our daily life.

Finally, the museum is still looking for more software (and hardware), so if you have discs languishing in your garage or basement, check out the wish list.

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