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posted by janrinok on Sunday December 04, @07:31PM   Printer-friendly

Revisiting the wonder and betrayal of online life circa 1992:

I suppose that some of you, like me, will remember the very early days when logging in to a BBS was the only way to connect to other people on the internet. But how many of you actually ran a BBS? Here is one such story:

Thirty years ago last week—on November 25, 1992—my BBS came online for the first time. I was only 11 years old, working from my dad's Tandy 1800HD laptop and a 2400 baud modem. The Cave BBS soon grew into a bustling 24-hour system with over 1,000 users. After a seven-year pause between 1998 and 2005, I've been running it again ever since. Here's the story of how it started and the challenges I faced along the way.

In January 1992, my dad brought home a gateway to a parallel world: a small black plexiglass box labeled "ZOOM" that hooked to a PC's serial port. This modem granted the power to connect to other computers and share data over the dial-up telephone network.

While commercial online services like CompuServe and Prodigy existed then, many hobbyists ran their own miniature online services called bulletin board systems, or BBSes for short. The Internet existed, but it was not yet widely known outside academic circles.

Whereas the Internet is a huge connected web of systems with billions of users, most BBSes were small hobbyist fiefdoms with a single phone line, and only one person could call in and use it at a time. Although BBS-to-BBS message networks were common, each system still felt like its own island culture with a tin-pot dictator (the system operator—or "sysop" for short) who lorded over anyone who visited.

Not long after my dad brought home the modem, he handed off a photocopied list that included hundreds of BBS numbers from our 919 area code in North Carolina. Back then, the phone company charged significantly for long-distance calls (which could also sneakily include parts of your area code), so we'd be sticking to BBSes in our region. This made BBSes a mostly local phenomenon around the US.

With modem in hand, my older brother—about five years older than me—embraced calling BBSes first (we called it "BBSing"). He filled up his Procomm Plus dialing directory with local favorite BBSes such as The Octopus's Garden, The Body Shop, and Chalkboard. Each system gained its own flavor from its sysop, who decorated it with ANSI graphics or special menus and also acted as an emcee and moderator for the board's conversations.

I have a distinct memory of the first time I realized what a BBS was. One day while I looked over my brother's shoulder, he showed me the file section of one of those BBSes—a list of available files that you could download to your local computer. Pages of free-to-download shareware games scrolled by. My eyes widened, and something clicked.

"You can download games for free?" I remember thinking. I noticed one file labeled "RAMPAGE.ZIP" that was one hundred kilobytes—or "100K," as listed. Thinking of Rampage on the NES, which was one of my favorite games at the time, I asked my brother to download it. He declined because it would have taken over five minutes to transfer on our 2400 BPS modem. Any file around one megabyte would take about an hour to download.

Online time was precious back then. Since most BBSes only had one phone line, you didn't want to hog the line for too long or the sysop might boot you. And there was extra jeopardy involved. Since we were using our regular house telephone line to connect, the odds that my mom would pick up and try to dial out—thus ruining the transfer process—remained very high. But whatever the risks, the thrill of remote projection by computer sunk into me that day and never left.

Follow the link for the full story - and he is still active today but not on a BBS....


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  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by MIRV888 on Sunday December 04, @08:00PM

    by MIRV888 (11376) on Sunday December 04, @08:00PM (#1281180)

    I was in 5th grade when I got my folks to get the modem cartridge. They didn't know what it was (lol). I dialed into the library's bbs (listed in the phone book no less). I got a bunch of other bbs#'s the library had listed, and it was trade wars from there.

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by Opportunist on Sunday December 04, @08:04PM

    by Opportunist (5545) on Sunday December 04, @08:04PM (#1281181)

    Until we learned to whistle in 2600Hz.

    Ok, this was the 90s. It got a bit more complicated by then, but that only meant that suddenly a lot of the stuff worked not just for certain phone companies but actually worldwide. Standardization is a wonderful thing, we definitely need it again.

  • (Score: 4, Interesting) by JoeMerchant on Sunday December 04, @08:21PM (8 children)

    by JoeMerchant (3937) on Sunday December 04, @08:21PM (#1281184)

    I started using BBSs in late 1983, first @300 baud, not too long after at 1200. By summer of 1984 I was running one using a downloaded program, and by 1985 I had significantly improved the performance of that program up to where the 1200 baud modem was the bottleneck. Remember: these things ran on 2MHz 6502s and used 88kb 5 1/4" floppies for "mass storage.". I sold (and supported) a copy of my improved BBS software for something like $20.

    Around 1985-6 I became aware of Fidonet which wasn't limited by free local calling / long distance charges - with positive and negative impacts on the BBS communities that accessed Fidonet. I finally got fed up with running my own BBS, people never did learn to respect operating hours to share the line for voice use, and shortly thereafter I faded from the scene altogether.

    I'm surprised to read about anyone getting started with a 2400 baud BBS as late as 1992. I suppose the "supermodems" (38.4kBaud) didn't really start until Mozilla became popular, I do remember that PCs stuck with the single byte buffer RS-232 chips until those modems made them an undeniable bottleneck and the new standard became an emulated 16550? with a 16 byte FIFO buffer.

    --
    Україна досі не є частиною Росії. https://en.interfax.com.ua/news/general/878601.html Слава Україні 🌻
    • (Score: 2) by Reziac on Monday December 05, @03:18AM

      by Reziac (2489) on Monday December 05, @03:18AM (#1281212) Homepage

      Wow, that is some serious old-timing!

      My first modem was a 2400 baud... got it for my 286, in 1993, at one of DAK's fire sales, for the whopping sum of five dollars. Oh, the many BBSs that modem called...

    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Monday December 05, @03:27AM (3 children)

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Monday December 05, @03:27AM (#1281213) Journal

      I'm surprised to read about anyone getting started with a 2400 baud BBS as late as 1992.

      For $40 I used a VT 100 clone, 2400 baud modem, and cable - the last being half the cost of the setup - to complete my masters thesis. When you're on a shoestring budget with really cheap shoestring back then, this sort of thing worked surprisingly well.

      • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Monday December 05, @12:53PM (2 children)

        by JoeMerchant (3937) on Monday December 05, @12:53PM (#1281243)

        I transitioned from university to industry in 1991, neither operated on a shoestring as far as PCs went.

        My personal computer was an Atari 800 until ~1988, then an Atari ST 16 bit which was mostly used as a dumb terminal into the University systems, usually in VT100 emulation mode.

        Because school / work has all these PCs that cost 2+ months of my salary, I didn't buy a home PC until maybe later 1992, a 486 because they were quite a bit more affordable than the 386s.

        As I recall my masters thesis was 70 pages in Word Perfect 5.1 it didn't do integrated images so I left gaps in the text and literally cut and pasted the images printed from other software into the gaps then photocopies the mixed text+image pages for the final document. It and the WP5.1 software traveled from one PC to the next on floppy disk, I forget if we were still carrying the OS around on floppies too, I think by 1989 most of the PCs had the OS on a hard drive.

        --
        Україна досі не є частиною Росії. https://en.interfax.com.ua/news/general/878601.html Слава Україні 🌻
        • (Score: 1) by khallow on Monday December 05, @10:36PM (1 child)

          by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Monday December 05, @10:36PM (#1281335) Journal
          I did mine in latex. So it looked prettier than otherwise. But it reminds me of artists who couldn't stand to look at their early works.
          • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Monday December 05, @11:27PM

            by JoeMerchant (3937) on Monday December 05, @11:27PM (#1281343)

            I had a prof who wrote his own filter circuits textbooks in Latex - lots and LOTS of fancy formulae formatted inline.

            One day the Vax his text was being written on gave a little hiccup of a storage error, but then kept going. Prof came through the lab and I mentioned that he might want to backup as the spinning mechanical drives sometimes warn of impending doom like this. Being a proper arrogant prick, not one to take advice from some kid barely 1/3 his age he spouted some nonsense about how a backup was unnecessary.... I believe it was 12 hours later that the drive with his Latex file on it went down with over 6 months work in it, all they had was the paper output....

            I don't know why he turned so purple in the face when he found out, it was his grad students who would be re-coding the Latex from paper....

            --
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    • (Score: 2) by stormreaver on Monday December 05, @03:32PM (1 child)

      by stormreaver (5101) on Monday December 05, @03:32PM (#1281265)

      I was a teenager in Hawaii when I first started using the precursor to BBS's in 1985. One of my first experiences was dialing into the University of Hawaii's* public timesharing system, chatting with other people, and playing games like Star Trek. It wasn't a BBS, as messages couldn't be posted and read**. But it was the first real-time chat system I ever used. I discovered real BBS's around that time, and spent a LOT of time on them. I was always sure to stay within the local calling distance, as I didn't want my parents to be mad at me. I didn't have the financial resources to host my own for several more years.

      I was happy to have been in the middle of my degree program when the Internet started making BBS's obsolete.

      * It might have had a different name, but University of Hawaii is how I remember it.
      ** If the capability existed, I didn't have access to it.

      • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Monday December 05, @03:58PM

        by JoeMerchant (3937) on Monday December 05, @03:58PM (#1281275)

        The BBSs I used in 1984 were storing their messages on floppy disks (quite limited space, even when streaming text at 120 characters per second), and they tended to have many layers of access - some open, some advertised as limited access apply here to join, and some invisible unless you knew who to ask to upgrade your account.

        It it was University of Hawaii hosted (and not just some guy at UH running his own thing) it may not have had any message storage or secret rooms, but most BBSs I interacted with around that time had some number of "secret rooms" in them.

        --
        Україна досі не є частиною Росії. https://en.interfax.com.ua/news/general/878601.html Слава Україні 🌻
    • (Score: 2) by Freeman on Monday December 05, @04:54PM

      by Freeman (732) on Monday December 05, @04:54PM (#1281284) Journal

      My internet experience at home started in the late 90s to early 2000s. Until I got fed-up with my parents' dial-up and paid for a point-to-point wireless setup as well as the monthly fee. They took over the payments when I moved out. They just recently were able to get wired internet. Some utility company was laying fiber along with electric and they were able to get that. They signed-up for pretty much the lowest plan, but it works nice. It's not like they live out in the boonies either, they're just barely outside the city limits.

      --
      Joshua 1:9 "Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee"
  • (Score: 4, Interesting) by Sjolfr on Sunday December 04, @08:34PM (2 children)

    by Sjolfr (17977) on Sunday December 04, @08:34PM (#1281185)

    These types of articles just make me nostalgic for my younger years in computer tech. 1992 I was in college and bought an Amiga 1200 that I loved. I still feel like I abandoned a child when I sold it a few years later (because I needed money for rent/food, depserately). I could type a lot faster than my 1200 baud modem. I still have the first CPU that I regarded as my favorite; AMD K6-2 300AFR. I used to have the 1MB ram stick that went with it, priced at $179.00. Ah the good ol' days.

    I never got in to BBSs but I got adicted to coding in MUDs and MOOs. I really wish that technology had been able to retain more of the core sensibilities that it was all built on. Over the years we've exchanged super lean, super fast, and intelligent technology for first-to-market, cheap labor, and buzz-word development. Not all of it, but too much of it IMHO. On the plus side systems' compatibility has improved greatly. Building computers is no longer an art of picking all the right parts to work together. It's more along the lines of building a computer that looks super cool. Still very cool, just different.

    I both miss my old ppp script and am glad I don't have to use it ... because the difference between a 1200 baud modem and a 900mb/sec cable modem is worth it.

    • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Sunday December 04, @09:51PM (1 child)

      by JoeMerchant (3937) on Sunday December 04, @09:51PM (#1281194)

      I feel like the time is ripe for an Infocom / Myst style game resurrection, with scenes rendered in animated 3D, of course, but the same relaxed mapping / puzzle solving game pace with pleasant ambient sounds and maybe an automatic wander mode through the opened spaces.

      Plot twist is that you can still play through the Infocom style text interface...

      --
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      • (Score: 2, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 05, @01:06AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 05, @01:06AM (#1281203)

        I feel like the time is ripe for an Infocom / Myst style game resurrection, with scenes rendered in animated 3D, of course, but the same relaxed mapping / puzzle solving game pace with pleasant ambient sounds and maybe an automatic wander mode through the opened spaces.

        Plot twist is that you can still play through the Infocom style text interface...

        Myst [cyan.com]and its sequels are still a thing to this day. I was just replaying Riven the other day.

        All or Cyan's current games are here [cyan.com].

  • (Score: 2) by Snotnose on Sunday December 04, @10:08PM (2 children)

    by Snotnose (1623) on Sunday December 04, @10:08PM (#1281196)

    He got into BBS about the time I discovered the www via web browsers and Linux.

    I remember the early 80s, I had a 300 baud modem, maybe 1200, a friend and I signed onto a matchmaking service. Crickets. For a good month. Then we made a female profile and got bogged down in replies.

    I remember buying new modems every few years, every time a faster one came out. I remember spending about $2500 every 3 years to keep my home computer useful. My home rig was usually faster than my work setup. I remember having a floppy disk in the left drive (not 3.5") that loaded the OS, made a RAM disk, loading everything into said RAM disk from my data disk (right drive), so I could edit/compile my C code 10x faster. This was before I could afford a hard drive.

    I remember being much more productive with said setup than in the office. I remember being graded not on my work output, but the days I didn't show up in the office.

    --
    Why is tamales pronounced tamales but females is pronounced females instead of females?
    • (Score: 2) by looorg on Monday December 05, @12:01AM

      by looorg (578) on Monday December 05, @12:01AM (#1281199)

      He might have been a bit late to the party. A 2400 baud single node BBS in 1992 isn't exactly something to write home about, but then it could have fond memories for him and his users. But then he was 11 years old so perhaps one should expect him to crank out some state-of-the-art 14.4k multi-node elite warez board either. Those would still go strong for a few more years before it all more or less died off by the later half of the decade.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 05, @01:08AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 05, @01:08AM (#1281204)

      ... I remember having a floppy disk in the left drive (not 3.5") that loaded the OS, made a RAM disk, loading everything into said RAM disk from my data disk (right drive), so I could edit/compile my C code 10x faster. ...

      Turbo C from Borland?

  • (Score: 2, Interesting) by GloomMower on Sunday December 04, @11:12PM

    by GloomMower (17961) on Sunday December 04, @11:12PM (#1281197)

    At 14, I had my parents get a dedicated line, and I ran a BBS for about a year in 1995.

    Ran Renegade, on a 386 DX 40 that was shared with the family. Having just the one computer to share with the whole city and my family, I eventually got a 386 SX 20 dedicated to the BBS. But later I got a dial up account at a university that had the internet and got sucked into a MUD through telnet. Dropped hosting the BBS for the MUD.

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by stormreaver on Sunday December 04, @11:16PM (1 child)

    by stormreaver (5101) on Sunday December 04, @11:16PM (#1281198)

    I ran a BBS for a couple years in the early 1990's. I had a Radio Shack Color Computer 3 using OS9 Level 2, student loans and grants, and programming skill. There were some BBS packages for the CoCo, but the programmer in me thought I could do better. I wrote my own BBS system in Basic09 and assembly, and wrote an assembly extension for someone else's BBS software (I can't remember which one it was). I paid for my BBS line from my financial aid.

    The great thing about the CoCo 3 was its multitasking abilities when running OS9. My BBS was just one of many things I ran simultaneously, and it always ran in the background. I wrote the whole system as a collection of OS9 subroutines, so I could publish changes to the code in real time.

    I eventually moved to the IBM Compatible world, and was shocked at how ridiculously primitive it was compared to the CoCo. I wrote a BBS system for the PC, but then gave it all up as impractical.

    • (Score: 2) by stormreaver on Monday December 05, @02:46AM

      by stormreaver (5101) on Monday December 05, @02:46AM (#1281209)

      I just remembered the name of the 3rd party BBS software I wrote the assembly extension for: asbbs. I rewrote the messaging subsystem in assembly, and, without intending to do so, got the developers to discuss adopting if officially. I don't think they ever did, but it was cool nonetheless.

  • (Score: 2) by istartedi on Monday December 05, @01:01AM

    by istartedi (123) on Monday December 05, @01:01AM (#1281201) Journal

    Back in the 80s, my first internship I sat with a guy who wasn't that much older than me but had a full-time job at the company. He'd BBS on spare time and remarked one day, "Wow, that guy's only 14 and he's a sysop". The whole wunderkind paradigm was kind of new, so it was forgivable at that point. At one point I was in my late 20s and had a boss who was like 17 or something. This was at a dial-up ISP. Kind of odd to think that you can't drink with the boss--but we generally weren't that kind of company anyway.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 05, @01:14AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 05, @01:14AM (#1281206)
    I never ran a BBS but frequented them quite a bit in the early 90's. Skip forward 10-12 years and I'm teaching a programming class at our local university. A name on my student roster seem familiar. It takes a class or two until I realize that one of the students had been the sysop of one of the more popular BBSes that I visited.
  • (Score: 2) by edinlinux on Monday December 05, @02:11AM (1 child)

    by edinlinux (4637) on Monday December 05, @02:11AM (#1281208)

    I ran a BBS called "Starlight Systems" on an Apple II with two floppy disk drives in 1983 in upstate New York. I was about 12 or 13 years old at the time.

    I coded it all myself, in Applesoft Basic as well writing as 6502 assembly routines that would allow a user to interrupt the display of text upon a keypress, which made it very very fast to use at 300 baud (as you didn't need to wait for a menu to finish displaying before making a selection and moving on to another part of the BBS). It had private email, as well as message boards, and got very popular as that 'interrupt text by typing' was a killer feature that made it so fast on the very slow hardware at the time.

    It was hard to get a dedicated phone line from the phone company then, they wanted to sell you a 'business line' (which was very expensive) if you already had a residential line in your house. Dad negotiated something with the phone company (it was all local then, not with call centers in the Philippines like today), and we could get the line at a reasonable charge for my small hobby.

    Those were the days. :-). Now a days I work in information security, which is also loads of fun!

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 05, @12:55PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 05, @12:55PM (#1281244)

      Yeah to me 1980s was phone BBS time, Apple II, Amigas, C64s, Atari STs etc. 1970s was a different Atari ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atari_2600 [wikipedia.org] ).

      1992? That's like internet BBS time ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monochrome_BBS [wikipedia.org] ), gopher, finger. Then later on Mosaic and not least Doom...

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by optotronic on Monday December 05, @03:04AM (3 children)

    by optotronic (4285) on Monday December 05, @03:04AM (#1281211)

    A friend and I at college wrote and sold the Atari 8-bit BBS program "Plexus" during the mid-eighties. We wrote it in C and assembler to save memory. I never ran a BBS but several instances ran in Michigan, at least. Cramming functionality into the limited memory at the time is not something I remember fondly although otherwise it was fun to work on.

    • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Monday December 05, @04:05PM (2 children)

      by JoeMerchant (3937) on Monday December 05, @04:05PM (#1281277)

      I downloaded some horrible Atari BBS written in BASIC around 1984 and cleaned it up - mostly just fixing up data structure inefficiencies and such, but I also identified a critical part that I recoded into 30 to 40 bytes of assembly code which sped the whole thing up to where the 1200 baud modem was the bottleneck (as it was when I started, a 300 baud modem wasn't the bottleneck most places....)

      I didn't have access to a C compiler for the Atari 8-bits back then, what did you use? Was it on a cartridge?

      --
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      • (Score: 2) by optotronic on Tuesday December 06, @02:44AM (1 child)

        by optotronic (4285) on Tuesday December 06, @02:44AM (#1281354)

        I know we used Deep Blue C for awhile. I think we also used Ace C. Neither was on a cartridge. We used SpartaDOS for development and ultimately required it for running the BBS.

        The C compiler didn't have much in terms of a standard library. Or maybe it was just too big so we wrote most or all of the I/O routines assembly, calling the OS CIO routines.

        • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Tuesday December 06, @03:22AM

          by JoeMerchant (3937) on Tuesday December 06, @03:22AM (#1281357)

          C and my Atari days never crossed. Later, around 1993-ish, I used the Cosmic (French company) C compiler for our 6811 work, it was quite good - anytime I checked the generated assembly it was tight, unlike some other C compiler for 6811 we had that made barely functional bloated slow garbage out of the same C code.

          --
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