Ten years ago today…the first Gizmo!

One decade ago I was a graduate student studying radioactive nuclear beams. These were the early days of the web. Netscape 2 was in beta form and was loose on the web. It was the first browser to support the new technology called plug-ins. Plug-ins allowed content other than text and images to be put on the web and viewed within the browser window. Netscape was waking up the web.

Netscape 2 startup screen

Startup screen of Netscape 2.

In December 1995 I heard about the Shockwave plug-in that was getting ready to be released. I got rather excited, since I’d played with the multimedia program called Macromedia Director 4 a year earlier when working on a “future of the education and the web” project for an education course I was taking (unbeknownst to my advisor). The web had started to bore me by 1995 with the text/image limitations. Being able to bring full multimedia to it sounded sweet.

Made with Macromedia logo

Logo associated with Macromedia Shockwave content.

During the holiday break I wanted to re-learn Director, and the programming language associated with it. I sat down and tried to create something that would help in a physics class I was teaching that semester.

On December 28, 1995 I walked in to work and showed my first “Gizmo” to a few people that were there that day (things were pretty slow during the holiday break – but physicists always seem to be at work). No one seemed really excited by it, but I thought it was cool. In between experiments at the Cyclotron I started putting together a few more of these web-based simulations, and putting them up on a website.

First shocked science

Image of my first Shockwave creation, December 28, 1995.

The original URL of the site was http://www.nscl.msu.edu/cycrip/science/ and it sat on a cute little Mac IIsi on the desk in my office running MacHTTP to serve the content to the world. Two weeks later I had three Gizmos up on my site.

First version of explorescience

Site on Feb 10, 1995.

An inclined plane, a reflex tester, and an air track. The oldest version of the site I still have on an old CD is from February 18, 1996. A week later a fourth Gizmo was added – a density lab. Three of the four Gizmos still work despite the changes in technology since then (what did you have on your desk in 1995?). They run rather quickly, since I never worried about gigahertz computers back then.

Old version of ExploreScience

View of the site on Feb 18, 1996.

In mid-January (just three weeks after putting the site up) I got an email where someone was interested in paying me to develop more educational multimedia using Shockwave. They had never seen anything like it before on the web. As a poor graduate student I jumped at the chance to earn some spare cash.

My career was taking a turn, but it wasn’t easy to see at the time.

My research continued and eventually became a thesis (1.3 meg PDF). That thesis led to a post-doc position and eventually to a faculty position. During this time I continued to play with my site in my spare time. When first hosting the site on the Mac IIsi the stats files started filling up the hard drive every night (I think it had a 10 meg hard drive…don’t remember for sure). If I didn’t remove the stats file every day the computer hard drive would fill up and a bad crash was the result. The site was moved to http://www.ppsa.com/science/ during 1996. In 1997 the site got its own URL of http://www.ExploreScience.com.

ExploreScience chooser bar in 1997

main explorescience logo in 1996

Logos from the site in 1996-1997.

The number of visitors continued to increase. In 1997 the web was really starting to explode and the site continued to receive awards. My fifteen minutes of fame had begun. My favorite of all time was the review by Yahoo when I was one of the picks of the week (March 9, 1998).

You cross the line and tumble into a shocking world of science gone mad. Raman Pfaff, mild-mannered scientist, has trapped, untangled, and illustrated the laws of physics. His creation: Explore Science — a shockwave-laden experience of sights, sounds, and interaction with scientific theory. Observe harmonic motion, mouse genetics, and the physics of golf. Abandon, if you dare, the world of two-dimensional textbook illustrations, and enter Raman Pfaff’s interactive world. Reality begins to swirl, dance, and coalesce…

The site was included in numerous magazines and newspapers including USA Today and Popular Science, and recognized on many sites such as Exploratorium, Yahoo, and ENC. It even made it into the Sunday Comics section of many national newspapers one weekend in 1998.

award in 1998 for ExploreScience

An award from Exploratorium.

Time continued to roll along. I was a professor with a joint appointment in the physics and education departments of a small university. Due to some unfortunate situations, I was having to teach a double course load, as well as take part in a reaccreditation process.

In the middle of that year I heard from someone that was trying to get a startup company going. The web was still in startup mode and many people had creative ideas. The new company would create math and science content for the web. Right up my alley. At this same time came another potential academic job at a school I really liked (a place that gets snow!).

The wheel of life was turning a bit more quickly.

Decision time came and the startup company was the choice. That was in 1999. Right about then the web had reached a “bubble” and the money stopped flowing to web-based companies. For six years we continued to be the “roaches of the internet.” No one could get rid of us no matter how hard they tried. My multimedia skills continued to improve and hundreds of Gizmos have made it on to the company site.

In March 2005 a really large company bought our tiny little company. My fifteen minutes of fame has ended (or is almost over). The academic world seems far away, as are the days of being a graduate student.

me in news story from Daily Progress

Image from Daily Progress article.

It is amazing what one little plug-in can do to your life. The day of December 28, 1995 has shaped my life for the past decade.I wonder what tomorrow will bring. Or the next decade. I constantly play with new technologies. Will one of them have as much influence as the Shockwave plug-in on that one day ten years ago?

I hope so.



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