It’s inevitable, as we get older, that we look back on the past with a certain nostalgia. That said, I think that computing in the era when I was growing up, the 1980’s, was more fun and interesting than it is now. Personal computers were starting to become common, but were not omnipresent as they are now. They were quite mysterious boxes. An error might throw you into a screen that started displaying hexadecimal with no apparent meaning. Each piece of software had its own interface which you had to learn, since there were really no set standards. For some, there might be a menu-driven interface. For others there might be control keys you used to navigate. Some programs required text commands. Even working with devices that had only 64 Kilobytes of memory, there was always a sense of adventure.
I got my start in network engineering in high school, in fact. Computer networks as we understand them today didn’t really exist back then, in the 1980’s, except in some universities and the Defense Department. Still, we found ways to connect computers together and get them to communicate, the most common of which was the Bulletin Board System, or BBS.
The BBS was an individual computer equipped with a modem, into which other computer users could dial. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept of a modem, this was a device that enabled computer data to be sent over analog telephone land lines. (I hope I don’t have to explain what a land line is, but I’m even finding today that young people aren’t familiar with the concept! I had to drive to a local restaurant when their phones weren’t working to order some food, and when I explained to the teenage hostess that I was getting a busy signal, I got a blank stare in return. I don’t think she knew what a busy signal is.) Virtually all BBS’s had a single phone line and modem connecting to a single computer. The host computer ran special BBS software which received connections from anyone who might dial into it. It then had a set of functions users could execute, such as sending email, posting messages on public message boards, text-based video games, and file transfers/downloads. (Keep in mind, the BBS was text-only, with no graphics, so you were limited in terms of what you could do.) An individual operator of a BBS was called a System Operator or Sysop (“sis-op”). The sysop was the master of his domain, and occasionally a petty tyrant. He could decide who was allowed to log into the board, what messages and files could be posted, and whether to boot a rude user.
Because a BBS had a single modem, dialing in was a pain. That was especially true for popular BBS’s. You would set your terminal software to dial the BBS phone number, and you would often get a busy signal because someone else was using the service. Then you might set your software to auto re-dial the BBS until you heard the musical sound of a ring tone followed by modems chirping to each other.
How did you find the phone numbers for BBS’s in the era before Google? You might get them from friends, but often you would find them posted as lists on other BBS’s. When we first bought our modem for my Apple II+, we also bought a subscription to Compuserve, a public multi-user dial-in service. On one of their message boards, I managed to find a list of BBS’s in the 415 area code, in which I resided. Then, I dialed into each of them. Some BBS on the list had shut down and I could hear someone saying “Hello??” through the modem speaker. Others connected, I set up an account, and, after perusing the board, I would download a list of more BBS numbers and go on to try them.
Each sysop configured the board however seemed best, so the BBS’s tended to have a lot of variation. The software I used, which was the most common among Apple II users, was called GBBS. GBBS actually had its own proprietary programming language and compiler called ACOS, which allowed for heavy customization. I re-wrote almost the entire stock bulletin board system in the years I ran mine. It also allowed for easy exchange of modules. I delegated a lot of the running of my board to volunteer co-sysops, and one of them wanted to run a fantasy football league. He bought the software, I installed it, and we were good to go. I had friends who ran BBS’s on other platforms that did not have GBBS, and their boards were far less customize-able.
Each user on a BBS had a handle, which was just a screen name. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that mine was “Mad MAn”. I don’t really recall how I thought of the name, but you always wanted to sound cool, and to a 15 year old madman sounded cool. This was in the era before school shootings, so it wasn’t particularly threatening. I spelled it with two words because I didn’t know how to spell “madman”, and this was before every spelling mistake was underlines in red. The second A was capitalized because I was a bad typist and couldn’t get my finger off the shift key fast enough. Because the BBS population consisted largely of nerdy teenage boys, a lot of the handles came from Lord of the Rings and other fantasy and sci-fi works. I can’t tell you how many Gandalf’s were floating around, but there were a lot. I had a Strider for a co-sysop. Others, like mine, attempted to sound tough. I had another co-sysop whose handle was Nemesis.
Since each BBS was an island, if someone sent you an email on BBS1, you couldn’t see it on BBS2. So, if you were active on five BBS’s, you had to log in to all five and check email separately. At one point a sysop who went by the handle “Oggman” launched a system called OGG-Net. (His BBS also had a cool name, “Infinity’s Edge”.) Oggy’s BBS became a central repository for email, and subscribing boards would dial into it at night to exchange emails they had queued up. This of course meant that it could take an entire day for email to propagate from one BBS to another, but it was better than before.
I’m writing this post in my “NetStalgia” series for a couple reasons. First, it’s always important to look back in order to know where you are going. Second, I’ve resurrected my old BBS using an Apple II emulator, and in my next post I’m going to share a few screen shots of what this thing actually looked like. I hope you’ll enjoy them.