A Computer Geek: BBSes

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.

But wait…

What’s a Modem?

Colour photograph of a box for a US Robotics 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”.

There were also variants of “multi-user dungeons” or MUDs. Examples include MajorMUD and DOORMUD. Think of them as primitive World of Warcraft… very primitive.

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

Blue compact disc labeled "Connect with AOL"

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.

BBSes Today

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.

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6 thoughts on “A Computer Geek: BBSes”

  1. Enjoyed the BBS article. My own experience was quite parallel. Started with an Apple 300 bps modem, upgraded to a 1200, then a 2400 model. That made connections to a DEC VaxMail email system at work feasible from my Macintosh SE. Like you I had to get a second phone line installed, especially because we had two teenaged daughters. (Bell even offered a feature to create special ring sounds, tied to a unique phone numbers, so the girls could tell – provided they had told their friends which number to call – if the call was for them or not.)

    CompuServe was my BBS service too. There was a local free BBS host with a bank of phones. Don’t know how he financed it. It was called Magic, which might be a clue.

    • Hi David, it certainly sounds like our experiences were very similar! I used my modem to read mail from our VAX too… although I never used a Mac.

  2. Another great nostalgic post Steve.

    My first encounter with a BBS was a 17 line TBBS (The Bread Board System) owned by Gerry Rynders in Oromocto. It ran on a Tandy (Radio Shack) computer. That was the one called Northern Connections. I was amazed by the system. Gerry and I became friends. I visited many times and Gerry shared his favorite peanut-shaped and filled cookies. I believe that I became one of his system administrators.

    I eventually wrote my own menu based, user configurable BBS for the Commodore 64. It was called Blackboard 64. It was one of a number of such software packages available at the time. There was no internet then, so we just had magazines and newsletters to read and advertise in. This was around 45 years ago now.

    I’m pretty sure that I developed my BBS software using basic and assembler. I remember the auto answer modems being very expensive at the time. I bought a USR modem that had an LED to indicate when a call was coming in. I tapped into that and connected it to the C64’s serial port. The code then controlled the modem using AT commands to answer the call and negotiate the connection. I still remember the handshaking tones and data streaming noise.

    I had a dedicated phone line for the BBS in my bedroom. I loved getting calls on it and then looking to see what the user had posted or accessed.

    • Hi Calvin, that TBBS rings a bell. 17 lines – amazing. That’s a lot of modems… and serial ports… I wonder how the Tandy handled it?

      That was quite the hardware hack to monitor the call LED to answer the modem! I remember writing some code that waited for the “RING” phrase to be sent from the modem (Hayes compatible) to answer the call. Maybe on a PC. I don’t remember doing much with the serial port on a C64. I later purchased an old VIC20 just to play with I/O using the parallel port and eventually cooked the video chip by accident.

      • Actually that’s a late night typo . It was 16 lines, which I believe consisted of a single (or perhaps 2×8) multi chip modem cards with an octopus of phone cables exiting. The Tandy 1000 was an IBM 8088 based compatible with ISA slots.

        I also exaggerated how long ago. Not 45 years, more like 35.

        Hayes modems. Now there’s a name from the past! I remember how nice the SupraFax 14400 modem was. The USR that I originally modified was probably only 1200 or 2400 BPS. That a far cry from modern high speed computer and cellular networks.

        • A multi-modem board makes a lot more sense. I remember using DigiBoard multi-port serial boards for a number of work applications; I imagine this was a similar thing.

          Supra modems were great, and so were US Robotics.

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