What did turbonerds do before the internet? 41 years ago, a load of BBS

Born in a storm of snow, killed off in a blizzard of TCP/IP: The Bulletin Board System


While large chunks of the US used this year's Snowmageddon to binge on streaming TV or tweet selfies with snowmen, take a moment to remember the Great Blizzard of 1978, which led to the first Bulletin Board Service (BBS) taking to the phone lines 41 years ago.

Those brought up with the seemingly endless amount of storage and server capacity of the cloud in recent times and the connectivity afforded by the internet are likely scratching their heads at the term "BBS".

Prior to the internet, enthusiasts seeking to exchange files, read news and postings, send messages or simply chat to each other would reach for their acoustic modem, and dial up a computer running BBS software.

Those computers – effectively servers in modern parlance – could (in many cases) host as many users as phone lines could be connected. Certainly, this hack can remember the annoyance of attempting to connect and listening to an engaged tone as other eager nerds filled the virtual rooms of the BBS discussing how to get hold of bootleg VHS cassettes of Star Trek: The Next Generation from the US before UK broadcast.

Kind-of BBS systems had been floating around during the 1970s in the form of mainframe software, but it was Chicago techies Ward Christensen and Randy Suess who kicked things off for enthusiasts on 16 Feb 1978 with the launch of the very first BBS. In an interview with Byte (PDF), the duo explained the project took 30 days to put together an assembler in a box rocking an Intel 8080 CPU and 24K of RAM.

A mock-up of the system was built using MITS 8K BASIC during the first week, and the pair had people call into the system to critique it. Once Suess and Christensen were happy with how things looked, the thing was rewritten in Assembler language in order to take advantage of the speed and efficiency of the resulting binaries.

Storage was handled by floppy disk, with CP/M providing the disk operating system. With 240K available on a disk at the time, and a directory able to keep track of 64 files, the team aimed at holding 200 to 300 active messages on the system at a time. Those were the days, eh?

The arrival of modems that could be connected directly to a phone line – rather than the acoustic coupler that required a user manually pick up an incoming call and shove the handset into a crude adapter – made unattended BBS systems possible, and Suess and Christensen's setup was able to cold boot CP/M and come up after the first ring.

Once in, at a mighty 110bps (or 300bps for speed demons possessed of the right hardware and a clean phone line), users were presented with some welcome text before, using the keyboard, firing off control combinations to deal with exotica such as Null handling or video terminals. Or simply send a message.

Over the 1980s and early 1990s, an entire industry sprang up around BBS systems, stoked by faster and cheaper modems. Far more user-friendly interfaces replaced the pure terminal displays as speeds increased. Operators found ways of monetising the systems by charging for services such as file downloads.

It was not to last. Those same modems that gave users access to BBS systems were pressed into service for dial-up connection to the internet. By the mid-1990s that connectivity and browser applications used to navigate the World Wide Web had pretty much done for the BBS industry.

While a few BBS systems endure today, run by enthusiast sysops, actually connecting requires a bit of determination on the part of users. Unless, of course, one gives up on that modem and fires up a Telnet client, in which case the likes of cavebbs.homeip.net are still up and running. ®


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