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posted by janrinok on Sunday December 04 2022, @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: 2) by JoeMerchant on Monday December 05 2022, @12:53PM (2 children)

    by JoeMerchant (3937) on Monday December 05 2022, @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.

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  • (Score: 1) by khallow on Monday December 05 2022, @10:36PM (1 child)

    by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Monday December 05 2022, @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 2022, @11:27PM

      by JoeMerchant (3937) on Monday December 05 2022, @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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