The login page for a BBS called Optical
Illusions featuring ANSI art.
For almost two decades, from the late 70's through
the mid 90's, a subculture flourished throughout most of the United
States and parts of Europe and Asia. It involved thousands of
mostly young, technically-oriented people exploring the capabilities
of the newly developed personal computer to allow communication
and socialization in ways never seen before.
I've heard the term "modeming" used for this activity,
and it isn't a bad idiom as all the activity required the use
of a phone-based modem that allowed two computers to talk. Perhaps
a more appropriate adverb for this is "BBSing" though that particular
combination of letters sounds rather awkward to me.
In either case, the activity in question involved
communicating via a BBS or Bulletin Board System. These kids (and
many of them were just high-school and college students) were
experimenting with primitive versions of applications that would
pave the way for today's social networks, like Facebook
and MySpace, peer-to-peer networks, line Napster
and Bit Torrent, and online games like World of Warcraft
and Guild Wars.
To understand the BBS movement you have to go back
to the late 70's. The personal computer was just starting to appear
in a number of different forms. The Apple II was perhaps
the first of these that was actually able to run some useful applications.
I owned an Atari 800, which had great graphics, but was
a bit short on software. Radio Shack had a PC called the TRS-80
and Commodore fielded a machine known as the 64. Things
really started moving in 1981, however, when IBM released their
version of the PC. It quickly became an open standard by 1982
and cheap clones started appearing on the market. Soon, anybody
who was really interested in owning a personal computer could
afford it for a few thousand bucks.
Remember, this was an era with no internet. No email.
No instant messaging. No mobile phones. The fastest way to contact
somebody was by a landline telephone , but a call across the country
might cost you a $1 a minute (that was an uninflated dollar to
boot). A letter was cheaper, but it could take over a week for
the post office to deliver a coast-to-coast envelope. Overnight
shipping companies didn't yet exist.
Computerized Bulletin Board System
It was in this environment in 1979 that the first
Bulletin Board System was developed by Ward Christensen, computer
programmer for IBM. Christensen worked on mainframe computers
during the day, but experimented with PCs at night. He, along
with his partner, Randy Suess, called the software CBBS for "Computerized
Bulletin Board System." He took the name from the community bulletin
boards that you might see at a college or library where people
could post and pick up messages. His software allowed people to
do this electronically.
To connect to CBBS and the other BBSs that would
follow, you needed three things. First of all a computer. In those
days it might be any of a number of units I mentioned above. Then
you needed a device called a modem. This allowed the computer
to talk over a regular telephone line to another computer. Finally,
you needed a piece of software for the computer that took what
was coming through the modem and put it up on the screen so you
could see it. This was initially done with a program called XMODEM.
A typical BBS of this era was run as a hobby. Initially
this was done by people who had an interest in computers either
because they were part of a computer club or because they were
in the computer business. Anybody who was interested in becoming
a "SysOp" (short for "System Operator") by turning his computer
into a BBS needed not just the computer but a modem to take the
calls and software like Christensen's CBBS. As the hobby spread,
dozens of different BBS programs appeared inspired by Christensen's
software. I was personally partial to boards that ran a program
called WWIV written by Wayne Bell in 1984.
WWIV was a popular BBS program because Bell not
only released the program itself for people to use but also the
source code necessary to make changes to the system and add new
features. This early version of the Open Software movement allowed
a lot of people to contribute to WWIV making it a better system.
The main screen from a WWIV BBS.
Perhaps the most useful feature of the early BBSs
was simple email. A user could dial into a BBS and leave a message
for another user. Or he could post a message to a forum for everybody
to read. Typically these forums would have particular topics.
Given the technical orientation of many of the early users they
were often about computers or software. And if not about techy
stuff, the topics often involved science-fiction or fantasy. (Probably
half the forums I saw were somehow linked to some aspect of Star
BBSs in the beginning were a localized phenomenon
because the expense to make long calls outside your local telephone
zone was prohibitive. However, in 1994 a computer enthusiast named
Tom Jennings decided to connect a few computers running his Fido
BBS software together so they could move messages between each
other. This was the beginning of FidoNet. Eventually it would
evolve into a network of over 20,000 BBSs (or nodes) around the
world. When the internet eventually came into general use in the
mid 90's, FidoNet also provided a way for these BBS's to connect
to the worldwide web and exchange email.
WWIV had its own network, WWIV net, which serviced
mainly WWIV BBSs. Eventually both networks would not only move
messages, but files so that a file placed on a BBS in Netcong,
NJ, would automatically be distributed to all other members of
the network, even as far away as Sydney, Australia. How did they
do it? The BBS in Netcong wouldn't directly phone the BBS in Australia,
but would forward the file to the next BBS on the network. Then
the next BBS would forward the file on to the next on the network,
and so on until the file finally reached its destination.
of the most successful FPS games of the 90's, Doom,
was primarily distributed through BBS networks.
This sort of networking was slow, but very cost
effective. It might take a few days for the message or file to
work its way around the world, but it was still faster than sending
a letter and certainly cheaper than posting a floppy disc containing
a file through international mail. The cost wasn't even borne
by the sender or receiver, but split up among the owners of the
BBSs, who had to pay for the call between the boards. Often, however,
they were able to re-coup some of the money through donations.
While FidoNet used a strict hierarchical arrangement
to connect all the nodes, WWIVnet used a system that allowed the
network to figure out which available route was the fastest for
any particular message or file to move across the network. This
arrangement was probably the first time a network had ever been
set up like this and is very similar to the peer-to-peer network
arrangements used today.
Why would you want to send a file around the world?
For many of the same reasons people patronize those peer-to-peer
networks today. While high-res pictures and music were often too
bulky to be sent across such slow dial-up networks, computer programs
were smaller in those days and much software distribution was
done this way. While the result of some of this was copyright
infringement as people traded pirated programs, many of the programs
moved around were shareware. Developers of shareware might give
their programs way for free, requesting a donation if you used
them and liked them. Others used it as a way of marketing their
wares by giving you the basic program for free but charging a
fee for a key that would unlock additional features, or in a game,
Perhaps one of the most famous programs marketed
through shareware distributed on these BBS networks was the game
Doom. Although it wasn't the earliest of the "first-person
shooter" games, it did much to popularize this type of entertainment.
When the game was released in 1993, almost all of the 10 million
people who had it installed on their computer over the next two
years got their copy by logging on to a BBS.
The main screen from "Global War."
While BBSs allowed games to be delivered electronically,
they also served as gaming platforms themselves. The games were
very early versions of the multiplayer games now popular on the
internet. Because a typical BBS only had one modem (so that only
one user could be online with it at a time) the games were not
real-time, but were played out over a number of days with each
player taking one turn a day.
My favorite game played on a BBS was called "Global
War." This was an electronic version of the popular board game
"Risk." It required 3 to 6 players. Risk was a particularly good
game to adapt to run on a BBS because each of the players turns
is long and requires little participation of the other people
in the game except to roll their dice in response to an attack.
Since no dice were used in the electronic version (the computer
used a random number generator routine instead) the defending
player did not actually need to be online at the same time as
the attacking player. A game of Global War might take four to
five days to complete, with each player getting one turn a day.
Because the games moved so slowl,y many players compensated by
being involved in multiple games at the same time.
Another popular game found on most BBSs was "Trade
Wars." This game took place in a future world where interplanetary
travel was possible. The object was to make money by trading various
commodities between space stations and planets. For this you needed
a spaceship (I named mine the Century Eagle as a parody
of the Millennium Falcon). You could purchase this at a
shipyard, then as you became richer you could trade up to a faster,
better-armored vessel, or equip the one you had with better weapons.
Other players on the BBS would compete with you, and if weren't
careful, blow your ship to smithereens.
The start up ANSI graphic screen for Trade
Trade Wars paved the way for a lot of multi-player
games that followed over the years; however, nobody who has seen
a modern multi-player networked game would be impressed with the
graphics. Because the communications speeds involved were so slow,
images sent across the lines couldn't be pixel based. Even with
a fairly swift 2400 baud modem that would send around 240 characters
across the telephone line per second, a low resolution 640x 480
pixel image might take five minutes to download. Instead, a method
called character graphics was employed. In this arrangement the
screen was divided into a grid usually 80 characters wide and
24 characters high. This meant that the whole screen could be
expressed in only 1920 characters and it would take less than
8 seconds to download with a 2400 baud modem. The problem with
this arrangement, however, was that only whatever 128 characters
that were in the character set could be shown on the screen. Of
these 128 half were taken up by numbers, upper and lower case
letters, and special characters. The rest, however, could be used
for things like boxes and lines that might be used to make graphic
screens. These used in conjunction with a set of codes standardized
by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) that controlled
things like position and color, allowed for a surprising amount
of flexibility from what seemed like a limited system. It was
possible to travel to a space station in Trade Wars, and actually
see a primitively animated film in the station's movie theater.
In addition to the ANIS art in games, there soon
developed whole art groups organized across BBSs. They would create
their artwork in ANIS and then share them as "packs"
of files across the network. A SysOp would often individualize
his BBS by having a fancy ANSI art screen scroll up when you logged
on to his system.
Though most BBSs were operated by individuals for
the love of it, a few made the jump to commercial sites. The most
successful of these were BBSs that supported an existing company
or service. If you bought the new XYZ sound card for your PC,
you could download the newest drivers from the XYZ company board.
piece of ANSI art: Artist Unknown
Others managed to collect money from members for
providing the BBS service by offering multiple simultaneous access
and extensive forums and files. Most of these services found it
was hard to compete with the free access offered by private enthusiasts,
of an Era
As the internet became more and more available to
people in the mid 90's, interest in BBSs waned. Many closed up
shop. Others became websites. A few of the large commercial ones
turned into internet dialup ISPs. A few boards continue to exist,
though most of these can only be accessed via the internet rather
than dial up modem.
The era off BBSing disappeared almost as quickly
as it had appeared. Parts of it still remain serving people in
surprising ways. FidoNet still exists and in some countries where
the internet is censored, it provides a way to communicate without
the government watching. They can easily monitor a few internet
trunks, but it is much harder to regulate thousands of dialup
For those who want to know more about this era,
you may want to check out BBS: The Documentary at http://www.bbsdocumentary.com/.
Producer Jason Scott, a historian of this movement, explores the
phenomenon and the people who made it happen.
Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.