Today we take computer networking for granted. In fact, most people don’t even think of it at all. The fact that the device in your hand can load a web page halfway across the planet in a few seconds is taken for granted.
It wasn’t always this easy.
In fact, it was downright difficult.
In the early days of personal computing, in the 1980s, the Internet wasn’t available to mere mortals like us. It wasn’t anything like today’s Internet at that time. You can read A Brief History of the Internet (I’ll warn you that it really isn’t brief).
What we did have was “bulletin board systems” or BBSes.
What’s a BBS?
Fundamentally a bulletin board system was a computer in someone’s house, running some custom software, and listening to one or more modems. People would call into these modem(s), log in with their username and password, and browse forums and upload or download files. Post notes on virtual bulletin boards.
In a lot of ways, how we use the Internet today was how we used BBSes. They were just a lot more primitive and localized.
The fact that you used a modem limited which BBSes you could access. If you wanted to access a BBS in California, and you lived in Fredericton, New Brunswick, you could either call during the day and pay a fortune in long-distance phone charges, or call after midnight and pay a smaller fortune. Ask me how I know. 😉
Over time, many BBSes became more professional and were hosted on dedicated machines with banks of modems, and charged for access to cover their costs. One BBS I frequented a lot in the Fredericton area was Northern Connections. I mentioned that in my Super Snapshot post.
What’s a Modem?
A modem is a device that converts data between analog and digital formats. The word “modem” stands for “modulate-demodulate”. In this post I am talking about telephone modems that convert digital (serial) signals from a computer into analog (audio) signals to go over a phone line.
Modems are always in pairs. One modem converts a digital signal into analog, some kind of network transfers the analog signal to the other modem, which converts the analog signal back to digital.
The speed of telephone modems is rated in “bits per second” (bps). The highest practical speed you can get with a telephone modem is about 56,000 bps, generally expressed as 56K. You might also see modem speeds described as “baud” instead of “bps”. Almost always when you see “baud” written, they really mean “bps”, but I won’t get into that.
My first modem was a 300 bps modem, purchased for my Commodore 64. It was a cartridge that plugged into the back of the 64. It wasn’t fast by any means but it was a start. Eventually I upgraded to an external 2400 bps modem, which was lightning fast by comparison.
In order to use the external modem, I needed a VIC-1011A device to provide an external serial port for my Commodore 64.
I still have this – I’m not sure why. The bottom part plugs into the expansion slot of a C64 (or VIC-20) and the top part is a 25-pin female RS-232C serial port connector. All you need is a cable to connect your modem to this, a terminal program on the C64, and Bob’s your uncle.
Nowadays the vast majority of modems connect to your computer via USB, like the US Robotics 56k modem shown earlier. Computers don’t come with serial ports any more – nor do they come with floppy drives, or CD drives, or turbo buttons.
Since modems required a phone line, you were in constant fear of your call being interrupted by someone picking up a phone somewhere else in the house. I ended up paying for my own phone line so I could use a modem whenever I wanted without interrupting my parents’ access to their telephone.
As the Internet became more prevalent (remember the “information superhighway”? a “series of tubes”?) BBSes faded away and were replaced by web sites and email. You still needed a modem, though! You’d call your Internet provider, which was probably a telephone company at that time.
Modems were slow and not always reliable. I don’t miss them.
One of the main uses of BBSes was file sharing. In those days, people wrote shareware and freeware and released them into the world. BBSes were the main way of distributing those programs.
BBSes were also used to circulate pirated software… not that I would know anything about that.
Anything that you download today would be shared on a BBS. With modem speeds, and more limited computers, you wouldn’t be downloading gigabytes of data.
You downloaded files using one of several common protocols. These had error checking built in so it would retry a portion of the download if an error occurred. This was common with modems and phone line noise. One of the earliest protocols was called “Kermit” after the frog, and then came XModem, YModem, and my personal favourite, ZModem. Communications was my specialty at work, so I could tell you all about how these file transfer protocols worked.
These days, you use FTP or straight HTTP downloads because our connections are so much more reliable… and the TCP/IP connection you use to connect to the Internet has its own error checking built in.
You could enter into live chats with other people who were signed onto the BBS. This only worked for BBSes with more than one incoming line, of course, unless you were chatting with the BBS owner!
You could also send messages to other users of that BBS. But what about other BBSes?
Some clever people came up with Fidonet. This was a “store and forward” system of sending messages between BBSes. Basically you would write a message and send it to a special (long) address that included the target BBS system. Each BBS had a list of other BBSes to call every night (when rates were lower) and forward messages onward. It was primitive but it did work… slowly. You can read more about FidoNet here: The World-Wide-Web Fidonet Resource – History (olografix.org)
BBSes could also host games. They might come with very simple games like Tic-Tac-Toe or other games that could be rendered in text only.
Many BBS games were called “door games” because you would dial into the BBS, and when you wanted to play the game, it would hand your connection off to separate game software through a virtual “doorway”.
My Own BBS
For a while, I hosted my own BBS, called “Infinite Realms”. I hosted it on my Commodore 64, I think, and when I was running the BBS, I couldn’t use my computer for anything else.
It was pretty small potatoes and wasn’t frequented very much. I mostly used it to chat with people.
Moving On From BBSes
Eventually “online service providers” like CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online (AOL) came along and offered a superior experience to BBSes. You still had to dial into them but it was inherently multiuser and far larger forums, file sharing and messaging.
I used CompuServe. There was also a C64-specific service called Quantum Link that had its own software and a rather attractive interface that I used for a while; it eventually became America Online.
Over time those moved to being Internet providers as the World Wide Web exploded. AOL was famous for sending its sign-on disks and CDs everywhere. AOL still exists as an Internet provider and email host, but I don’t think Prodigy or CompuServe exist in any usable form.
There are still BBSes running today – here’s a few.
I don’t see any particular reason to connect to a BBS today, except to experience some nostalgia. Like most things in the computer arena, wifi and the Internet are vastly superior to the old modem / BBS experience. Still, it’s nice to look back to see how far we’ve come in such a short time.