A century ago, a post–World War I America had thrown itself into football. At Stanford, a new stadium added to the fervor—though at the Farm, the action wasn’t all on the field. Anyone capable of lifting a colored placard above their head could join in halftime “card stunts,” a mix of moxie and mockery designed to laud the home team and lampoon the visitors.
In later decades, the choreographed displays created animated shows with multiple scenes. Reliably, one of them would be an opposing mascot meeting an unfortunate end. As a finale, a small red dot would ripple out against a white background to form a giant block S threaded by El Palo Alto, aka the tree.
It was pageantry, but by 1960, it was petering out. With the football team winless that season, and the distractions of the Sixties wafting, student organizers in Stanford’s Rally Committee (precursor to the Axe Committee) began to worry about attracting the labor to carry out the stunts.
A visionary, Forsythe was on a mission to demonstrate the potential of computers.
It wasn’t just that they needed 3,465 students to fill the 45 rows of the rooting section. It was that they had to hand-stamp individualized sets of instructions so each student would know which color to raise when. And then they had to place each set under the correct seat, along with the correct cards. The endeavor took some 400 hours of preparation—for every single home game.
That was the state of things when junior Marshall Turner, ’63, MS ’65, Rally Com’s art director, crossed paths with math professor George Forsythe. A visionary, Forsythe was on a mission to demonstrate the potential of computers, not least the Burroughs 220 mainframe taking up an entire room in the basement of Encina Hall. Could they help each other out?
Forsythe recruited two math majors to the cause: Larry Breed, ’62, MS ’65, and Earl Boebert, ’61. Neither gave a hoot about football, Boebert says. But they loved the nascent world of programming and toiled on the problem for months in the early hours, when the machine was free.
Their creation was ready for the 1961 season. Stunt designers needed help from programmers to enter coordinates on punch cards. (Basic user-friendliness—heck, even computer screens—was nonexistent.) The program then built up a library of shapes and commands, allowing for increasingly complex performances. And it printed the instruction cards. A job that had once taken hundreds of hours could now be done in 13.
Increasingly sophisticated stunts required an increasing number of card changes.
Considered the first computer animation language, the program was refined over the years and helped launch the careers of a bevy of computer science luminaries. But it couldn’t save card stunts. A decade later, the tradition was gone.
Potential culprits are many: Regimented stunts might not have fit more rebellious times; campus life offered more options. Not to mention a guy named Jim Plunkett, ’70, who, in the late 1960s, had made the action on the field more interesting than the halftime antics. But the software might share some of the blame. Increasingly sophisticated stunts required an increasing number of card changes. Not all the human pixels approved.
“The people who were flipping the cards and trying to follow the instructions thought, ‘Gee, we’ve gone from 60 or 70 counts to 250,’ ” says Bill Kuehn, ’65, who was in charge of the card stunts for two years. “‘And that’s taking longer, and who the heck cares?’ It just got too complicated.”
Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.