ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Beautiful Boot —

What I think has impressed me the most over the years I’ve worked with computers are the times I’ve come to an expectation that a computer acts a “certain way”… and then along comes a programmer, hacker or tinkerer who proves that no, in fact you’re wrong and it doesn’t have to be that “certain way”.

One of these situations was floppy disk load times. Having come from cassette tapes, where it could literally be 20-30 minutes of load time before the program was ready to go, Floppy Disks were by far both superior and blindingly fast. But people are what they are, and it never takes that long for the mind to adapt to the increased speed and then find fault with it. In the case of disks, it could be anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds to load a program via floppy, depending on what was going by.

I didn’t own an Apple II at the time, but the Apple II was what the schools dealt in and that’s what the kids would trade programs in. If you were lucky, your school had kids who had access to programs/copies of disks outside of the district, and then you’d have even more cool stuff. It also gave whoever had these new programs the pride of showing off their latest wares. (Softwares. Wares. Warez. I’m sure you get the etymology of this by now.)

Again, the way that programs (especially commerical programs) being traded around “worked” is that you’d put the floppy disk into the drive, then power on the machine, and then let it “boot” into the program, taking about 15 seconds to do so, chugging away, and then it’d show a graphic splash screen and there we were. This was the “certain way” that floppy disks on the Apple II would boot.

However, that changed for me when I ran into “Beautiful Boot” by the Midwest Pirates’ Guild.

You never forget your first time, or more accurately you occasionally do forget your first time if it’s the first time encountering a file selection menu. But I remember mine clearly. I was in a computer classroom at school, and there was a movable cart with a large (regular) television serving as a monitor at the front of the room, and someone shoved in their latest “wares’ disk to show off what they had. They turned on the Apple II, and in one click of the disk drive, there it was:

The screenshot shows several things clearly and a few things not as clearly. First of all, the font was great: instead of the basic Apple II font, this was an easy-to-read style that could been seen across the room. The selections were all right there, waiting for you to type in a letter instead of the commands BRUN STOLEN.PROGRAM.I.DOWNLOADED or RUN “CRAPPY BASIC PROGRAM”. And the minute you did, off they would go, chugging away quickly and your program would be up in no time.

Additionally, it had a soundtrack, albeit a simple one: plinky little dots of noise, not unlike the starfield that was scrolling in the background, which was also amazing to watch… all of this in one disk chug! How did this happen? It was basically magic.

This was a quantum leap from anything I’d seen before. I got a copy of the disk that had this menu on it, but it was years before I got my hands on the actual program to generate this menu. The documentation for Beautiful Boot is here in my archives, and you can see the excellent work done on this program’s instructions to make it easy to use.

Here’s screenshots from the generation program (called Beautiful Boot, of course):

So, how did Beautiful Boot boot so quickly? Well, by simply working hard at the programming, of course: being on Track 0, it highly compressed the program that would do the actual menu, and had a very reduced version of AppleDOS that could fit in that track. One click, one read, one run. And so in doing this, they proved everything could be improved about the Apple Boot process.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mini Appler (and Sinbad Sailor) of the Midwest Pirate’s Guild as part of the BBS Documentary. When the opportunity came up to interview them, you can bet I was going to move heaven and earth to make such an interview happen. As it was, it only took a round-trip by car across Wisconsin to Minneapolis, Minnesota, a few extra hours on an insane trip that will always be thought of as the “Midwest Run”. (I went to 8 states in 10 days, driving thousands of miles and doing well over a dozen interviews).

Here’s the Mini Appler (get it? Minneapolis?) from one of the photographs I took during that interview.

What a great guy he was; photogenic, articulate, and with a good memory for the BBS days. Naturally we discussed Beautiful Boot, where he told me how he’d gotten the starfield routine from a Broderbund game of the same time (he’d lifted the assembly routines, then changed them from side-scrolling to vertical scrolling). It was great to finally, ultimately, thank him for blowing my mind a mere 20 years earlier.

This magical situation, where a well-written program does something that nobody previously thought was possible, has only happened to me a few times in my life (most recently would be the 8088 Corruption demo that Trixter did in 2004). When they happen, you have to treasure them, and they remind me how everything is possible, and cynicism gets me nothing but a slow load time.

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  1. leahpeah says:

    I remember the first time we had the Apple computers put in our classroom. Our teacher was so excited. He put in the missile game where you used math and put in the trajectory and wind speed/direction or something like that. I remember feeling proud when I killed someone else because my math was not always the best and I was routinely behind a little, but it was just a game to me. A giant game with a giant screen. My mind couldn’t see the potential. I’ve always blamed that teacher for not explaining it to me better. I think I lost quite a few years because I didn’t understand the potential. But I’m wondering now if it was just the limitation of my imagination and nothing the teacher did.

  2. Somewhat unrelated, but I remember a similar revelation moments after using a Fast Load cartridge on the C64 for the first time. The C64 had obviously superior graphics and sound compared to our Apple II, but the load times were almost unbearable. I remember owning games that took between five and ten minutes to load — from a floppy! The Fast Load cart sped things up ten fold. I remember thinking at the time, “why didn’t they just build whatever’s in this cart into the drive, and skip a step?”

  3. Jason Scott says:

    Not unrelated at all, Flack. I thought the Fast Load cartridge was a perfect example of that very situation. However, the way that the Fast Load cartridge worked was basically by jamming the 1541 so that it no longer did three verifications on each read and write, instead doing one, and doing a few other similar tricks. It functioned kind of like the print buffers of the old days on PCs, where the hardware was basically giving a slightly different interrupt to the OS and “fooling” it to do things to the user’s benefit.

    I’m sure to the engineers who’d made the 1541, this was crazy insane because they knew the potential for lost data. Same thing with going from single-sided to double-sided disks for floppies; in many cases they didn’t put much of any quality into the second side, but people were fine with that! In other words, you could TAKE these advantages but no company in their right might would SELL them, because they were unreliable.

    There was a copy program for the Apple II that used memory buffering tricks to be able to copy a floppy in no time; it would go through the sectors like a shimmering curtain of pixels and then be on the other side going “I’m Done!” I’m sure it totally didn’t verify-check, but damn was it fast.

  4. Deckard says:

    The full source code of the Beautiful Boot is available here:

    Skip the french text and go to the SOURCES section.


  5. Adam says:

    What is that font?