Geek Trivia

The Composition Of The Iconic “Bliss” Windows XP Wallpaper Was Only Possible Because Of?

An Insect Infestation
Seasonal Flooding
Recent Forest Fires
Summer Storms
Eccentric Billionaire Howard Hughes Once Bought An Entire Casino In Order To?

Answer: An Insect Infestation

It was the default wallpaper on Windows XP. Between the hundreds of millions of computers Windows XP was installed on and the sheer number of years it hung in there, it’s a safe estimate to say that the image in question has been seen, at minimum, billions of times since 2001.

What’s fascinating about the image, its enduring popularity aside, is the story of how it came into existence, and how without a series of entirely unrelated events, it wouldn’t be the iconic wallpaper it became. The image was taken in January of 1996 by retired National Geographic photographer Charles O’Rear. He was en route from his California home to visit his then-girlfriend (now wife) Daphne Irwin. O’Rear was working with Irwin on a book about the wine country of California, and he kept his camera with him in case he came across any ideal shooting conditions. On the particular day he snapped the photo that would become “Bliss”, he was driving along the Sonoma Highway (California State Route 12 and 121) in the heart of wine country, but there was nothing wine-related for him to shoot. The vineyards had all been laid bare by an infestation of the pest phylloxera, and vineyard owners had ripped up all the grape vines to purge the rest (replacing the vines with grass to keep the soil nourished and in place).

The combination of the bright blue sky, puffy clouds, and rolling emerald hills was irresistible and, useful for the book or not, he pulled over and composed the photo (taking a total of four shots). He later uploaded the best shot to the Corbis stock photo service and scarcely thought anything of it again. That is until Microsoft contacted him and offered to purchase the total rights to the photograph (including the original negatives) in exchange for an unspecified but exorbitant sum of money. Why Corbis and why that photo? Bill Gates founded and owns the stock photography service and it is widely believed that they pulled it from the service to promote it. As for why “Bliss”, the photo is a perfectly complimentary and serene companion to the Windows XP default color scheme.

So if not for a trip to see his girlfriend, a medium format camera on hand to document anything interesting he found in wine country, a perfectly beautiful day, a pest infestation, uploading the shot to a stock photo service owned by Bill Gates, and a willingness to sell off the rights to his photo, that one lovely rolling hill in Sonoma County, California wouldn’t be immortalized in our collective consciousness.

Image courtesy of Microsoft.