The tech Easter egg hunt: The 9 best hidden secrets in tech history

In 1979, Warren Robinett snuck a secret message to fans in his Atari video game, Adventure. Players were soon scurrying through every corner of the game world to locate Robinett’s hidden message, the staff at Atari likening the madness to an Easter egg hunt. The term held, as did the practice, with jokes, snide references and strange commands ending up tucked away into thousands of products. Join us as we explore the strange corners of the software you use every day.

1. The 9 secrets in tech history: Android’s About Phone

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The different versions of Android have always been named after tasty treats, including Gingerbread, Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean, KitKat, Lollipop and, most recently, Marshmallow. Each of these has come with its own Easter egg, accessed by entering Settings | About Phone (or Tablet) and then repeatedly clicking on the Version tab until the magic happens.

The subsequent animations have run the gamut from surreal to downright disturbing, with Lollipop and Marshmallow offering up a Flappy Bird-style minigame. My favourite has to be Gingerbread’s, which brought up a painting of the Android logo holding hands with a gingerbread man, while surrounded by zombies on smartphones. 

2. The 9 secrets in tech history: Jurassic Park 404

404 is the error code you receive when a web page is down, or you’ve typed an address wrong. In most cases, such errors are irritating, but a few companies have made their 404s so good that we’d happily set the North Koreans on them, allegedly, just to see the messages more often. Our favourite can be found at nouveller.com/404 – which recreates the famous sequence from Jurassic Park, where tubby hacker Dennis Nedry lets the dinos loose. Don’t forget to enter the magic word. A close second is the 404 for the NPR website, which simply lists other missing things, from Atlantis to Wally, to your luggage. 

3. The 9 secrets in tech history: Linux frees the fish

Linux is the work of a million mad geniuses, which means Easter eggs are stuffed into every coded crevice. Start messing about in the terminal and jokes tumble out like clowns spilling free of an exploding car. Start with Alt+F2, and then type “free the fish” to release Wanda the goldfish onto the desktop. Aside from being a rather jolly presence, Wanda also dispenses snippets of fortune-cookie wisdom such as “You are confused; but this is your normal state”.

Equally wonderful are the various calendars, accessible through the terminal by typing “ls/usr/share/calendar/”. Among our favourites is the Lord of the Rings calendar, which marks the progress of the ring-bearer and his pals as they travel halfway around the world to stop Sauron getting married. Disclaimer: we may have taken the wrong message from that book.

4. The 9 secrets in tech history: Google’s geeky side leaks out

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One day, Google employees will be just brains in jars, wired directly to the internet, so we should all enjoy their capacity to feel human emotion while we can. As the delivery service for popular culture, it’s no surprise to see Google’s gaze encompass perhaps the geekiest of all sci-fi shows, Doctor Who. Head to Earls Court in Google Maps and you’ll notice a police box sitting outside the Tube station. Hit the white “X” that appears in front of it and you’ll be ushered into the Tardis.

Google has also included a wonderful flight simulator into Google Earth. Simply press Ctrl+Alt+A (or Cmd+Option+A on a Mac) and pick a plane to start soaring above the world’s cities, towns and terrain. You can fly by either using a joystick, or getting to grips with keyboard controls – don’t worry, we couldn’t get the hang of flying either.

Speaking of things that are rarely right side up, searching for “askew” will knock the page sideways, while typing “do a barrel roll” spins the page 360 degrees – a feature worth trying out on a colleague who’s looking the worse for wear. Should that fail, type “zerg rush” – a term borrowed from Blizzard’s StarCraft video game – which invites a swarm of zeroes onto the screen to start devouring your search results. Click the zeroes to score points.

But this is just the start, with hundreds of Easter eggs tucked away in Google products. Indeed, Wikipedia has a curated list of the best, many of which have a hint of melancholy. Search for “loneliest number”, for instance. Perhaps Googlers sense their time in the jar is coming.

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