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The earliest computer programs that have some resemblance to demos and demo effects can be found among the so-called display hacks.
Display hacks predate the demoscene by several decades, with the earliest examples dating back to the early 1950s.
These programs were initially known by various names, such as letters or messages, but they later came to be known as demos.
Simple demo-like music collections were put together on the C64 in 1985 by Charles Deenen, inspired by crack intros, using music taken from games and adding some homemade color graphics.
Demos in the demoscene sense began as software crackers' "signatures", that is, crack screens and crack intros attached to software whose copy protection was removed.
The first crack screens appeared on the Apple II computers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they were often nothing but plain text screens crediting the cracker or their group.
This can be explained by the break introduced by the PC world, where the platform varies and most of the programming work that used to be hand-programmed is now done by the graphics card.
With many of the past's challenges removed, the focus in making demos has moved from squeezing as much out of the computer as possible to making stylish, beautiful, well-designed real time artwork – a directional shift that many "old school demosceners" seem to disapprove of.
Demo writers went to great lengths to get every last bit of performance out of their target machine.
Where games and application writers were concerned with the stability and functionality of their software, the demo writer was typically interested in how many CPU cycles a routine would consume and, more generally, how best to squeeze great activity onto the screen.
On the ZX Spectrum, Castor Cracking Group released their first demo called Castor Intro in 1986.
The ZX Spectrum demo scene was slow to start, but it started to rise in the late 1980s, most noticeably in Eastern Europe.
On a modern computer the executable size may be limited to 64 k B or 4 k B.