Archival Documents   »The Disk and Its Code

Documents, code, analysis of the code, and an emulation related to the functioning of the Mac diskette containing William Gibson’s poem in Agrippa. The diskette contained a custom-built set of programs that decrypted a pre-encrypted copy of the poem, rendered it as black text on white background scrolling up the screen at an unstoppable pace, and then created the illusion of re-encrypting the poem and making it “disappear” forever after it had been seen once. (In reality, the “Cracking the Agrippa Code” contest showed in 2012, there was no encryption program on the disk. Instead, the decrypted text was left behind in computer memory, while a simple cipher substitution generated through a reuse of the decryption routine created the appearance of reencryption on the screen.  A brute-force algorithm initiated at the start of running the disk also destroyed the disk’s stored routines by overwriting them with the alphabetic ACGT letters of faux-DNA code.) In the documents related to the creation of the code in 1992, the hired programmer’s name and signature have been blacked out due to his wish (according to Agrippa’s publisher) to remain anonymous.

Cracking the Agrippa Code: How the Disk Worked (Discoveries From the “Cracking the Agrippa Code” Contest in 2012)

In July 2012, Quinn DuPont—at the Information Science department at University of Toronto—ran a “Cracking the Agrippa Code” contest offering hackers “every William Gibson book ever published (except Agrippa)” for solving the mystery of how the code on Agrippa’s disk actually worked to scroll Gibson’s poem up the screen and then, famously, “encrypt” it forever.  The contest produced surprising discoveries.

“Cracking the Agrippa Code” Contest
Archival Copies (original posts here) CC BY-NC 3.0

See also Quinn DuPont, “Cracking the Agrippa Code: Cryptography for the Digital Humanities,” Scholarly and Research Communication 4.3 (2013): 1 – 8.

Context, Highlights, and Commentary by Alan Liu arrow-right (more…)

A “Run” of William Gibson’s “Agrippa” Poem from a Copy of Original 1992 Agrippa Diskette

Rapid access: YouTube
Higher-quality: QuickTime video

20 minutes, 13 seconds.
Agrippa label at start of poem's run


Agrippa “label” at start of poem’s run
Beginning of poem as it scrolls up screen


“I hesitated…”
(Beginning of poem as it scrolls up screen)
The poem continues


“The mechanism…”
(the poem continues)
The poem ends


“laughing, in the mechanism” (the poem ends)
Encrypted text appearing after end of poem
Encrypted text appearing after end of poem
Desktop of Mini vMac emulator

Desktop of Mini vMac emulator with System 7 used to run the poem
Folder on Mini vMac emulator

Folder on Mini vMac emulator with System 7 used to run the poem
Rapid access: YouTube
Higher-quality: QuickTime video

20 minutes, 13 seconds.
Item #D51. Video capture of a “run” of William Gibson’s “Agrippa” poem made from playing a disk-image (bit-level) copy of original 1992 Agrippa diskette.


Source: original 1992 Agrippa 3.5″ diskette, 1.4 Mb, loaned by collector Allan Chasanoff.

Process: » Disk image (bit-level copy) made using the “dd” copy process. (See Item #D50 on this site: downloadable disk-image file.) » Run of the disk-image copy on a computer using Mini vMac emulator with System 7 book disk (to emulate the functions of the original 1992 Mac platform for which the software on the diskette was created). » Video capture of the resulting run of the poem.

More info: Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, with Doug Reside and Alan Liu, “No Round Trip: Two New Primary Sources for Agrippa.”

     Credits for the “Run”
  • Allan Chassanof (for loan of original diskette)
  • Kevin Begos, Jr.
  • Matthew G. Kirschenbaum and Doug Reside, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities
  • Alan Liu
  • Robert Maxwell, Digital Forensics Lab and Office of Information Technology, University of Maryland, College Park
  • Bini Tecle and Allan Rough, University of Maryland, College Park.
  • Permissions to copy, run, and reproduce the diskette online received from: Kevin Begos, Jr., Allan Chasanoff, and William Gibson.

Original Text of Gibson’s “Agrippa” Poem Extracted From Computer Memory During a Run of the Disk

Download diff file showing differences between poem extracted from disk and Web version on Gibson's site Also download agrippa.diff
Editor’s Note: The following was contributed on July 17, 2011, by Freek Wiedijk, a mathematician and Assistant Professor of Computing and Information Sciences at Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, The Netherlands.


I have been a long time fan of William Gibson, and was very excited about Agrippa when it appeared, long ago. At the time I was a Mac hacker. However, as I did not have access to the disk in the Agrippa art-book, I could not play with that. Of course I dutifully downloaded, read and stored the “Agrippa” poem once it was “hacked”, but that was it. (It took a long time before I had an idea what the book itself looked like, though.)

So recently I discovered The Agrippa Files site, and downloaded both the disk image and the movie of the Agrippa disk running in emulation.

So then I wondered whether I could have gotten the text of the poem out of that disk myself (without retyping it, just by hacking.) Of course my “classic Mac” skills are very rusty by now, but I still wanted to try. And I indeed did manage to “hack” Agrippa relatively easily, in a crude but effective way.

I did this in three steps: (more…)

Disk Image (Bit-level Copy) of Agrippa Diskette Created from Original 1992 diskette

Screenshots, audio files, and binary files from François Grieu’s technical analysis of the disk image
Disk info

“Agrippa” disk info
'Desktop' info file

Hidden "Desktop" info file
Picture included on disk

Agrippa label (picture included on disk)
Picture included on disk

Agrippa credits screen (picture included on disk)
Sounds included on "Agrippa" disk: camera click and gunshot
Exploration of

Exploration of resource fork of "Agrippa" disk with ResEdit program
Sector 2

            Sector 2
Sector 2 (interpreted)

Sector 2 (interpreted)
Sector 2878

Sector 2878

Scavenged vestigial data on these sectors of the disk image


Flat lossless archive of data fork, resource fork and file info of the "Agrippa" file, made using BinHex5

Download disk-image file (fd0_agrippa.dmg)

Item #D50. Disk image (bit-level copy) created from collector Allan Chasanoff’s original 1992 Agrippa diskette.


Download disk image file in .dmg format

Download disk-image file (fd0_agrippa.dmg)


This disk image was created by the Digital Forensics Lab and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland, College Park. For more information, see Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, with Doug Reside and Alan Liu, “No Round Trip: Two New Primary Sources for Agrippa.”

See also an independent technical analysis of the disk image performed by François Grieu, an engineer based in Paris (who also provided the screenshots, audio files, and other resources from his analysis at the left).

Original 1992 Agrippa Diskette Used to Make Emulated Run of William Gibson’s Poem

Front (in wrapper)
Front (in wrapper)



Item #D52. Original 1992 Agrippa 3½”, 1.4 Mb diskette belonging to collector Allan Chasanoff used to make the disk-image copy and emulated run of the William Gibson poem featured on this site.

This was the diskette used to create The Agrippa File’s disk-image (bit-level) copy of William Gibson’s poem and its accompanying software, as well as the emulated run of the whole package. In the Digital Forensics Lab at the University of Maryland, College Park, multiple copies were spawned from the original diskette and run through a computer emulating the platform of a 1992-vintage Mac. Multiple instances of Gibson’s poem thus came back to life, ran, and died (disappeared at the hands of the disk’s included encryption program) in the effort to capture the experience of reading the original poem—the experience, that is, minus the sense of one-time-only uniqueness that was part of the core work.

The diskette was loaned by Allan Chasanoff from his copy of Agrippa (editioned “10/95″). Chasanoff’s copy of the book is part of a collection of “book art” he began aggregating in 1990 that has grown to 275 works. The theme of his collection is “the artist and the new ‘disrespect’ he had in opposition to the older cultural devotion to the integrity of the book” (email from Chasanoff to Alan Liu, 5 December 2008).

The creation date of the software on Chasanoff’s diskette is “Wed., Sept. 23, 1992, at 1:13 pm; Modified Wed., Oct. 7, 1992, 10:50 pm.” The Post-It note on the wrapper of the diskette is Chasanoff’s original note (apparently dating from the time of acquisition). For discussion of the digital forensics used to recover and run the software from this disk, see Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, with Doug Reside and Alan Liu, “No Round Trip: Two New Primary Sources for Agrippa.”

3½, 800 Kb Diskette, Spray-Painted Black, Possibly Used as Early Prop for Agrippa

Front (in wrapper)
Sliding open the shutter of the black spray-painted 800 Kb diskette reveals white plastic beneath


The poem continues


Item #D53. 3½”, 800 Kb diskette with spray-painted shutter also belonging to collector Allan Chasanoff with unrecoverable or blank data

This 3½”, 800 Kb diskette was sent to The Agrippa Files by Allan Chasanoff together with the original 1992, mint-condition, 3½”, 1.4 Mb diskette included in his copy of Agrippa. It is possibly also vintage 1992. Sliding the shutter of the diskette open reveals white plastic underneath the black spray paint. Efforts in the Digital Forensics Lab at the University of Maryland, College Park, to recover code from this diskette were unsuccessful, possibly because the disk was originally blank. As discussed in Matthew G. Kirshenbaum’s “No Round Trip: Two New Primary Sources for Agrippa,” the painted diskette “may have simply been a prop, perhaps intended for display with one of the project’s prototypes.” (See other early prototypes of Agrippa.)

Instructions for the Diskette in Agrippa (1992)

Instructions for Agrippa diskette
Item #D3. Instructions for running the diskette in Agrippa containing William Gibson’s poem.

Facsimile Image

Notes on Agrippa‘s Code (25 March 1992)

Handwritten notes on Agrippa's code
Item #D7. Handwritten notes on Agrippa’s code.

Facsimile Images

Letter from the Programmer (28 March 1992)

Letter from the programmer
Item #D6. Letter from the programmer to the publisher regarding the code for Agrippa‘s disk.

Facsimile Images

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