How to use a modem
March 19, 2016 9:47 AM   Subscribe

From a suburban British house in 1984, Julian (password: 1234) demonstrates a modem while Pat (seemingly not allowed to touch the keyboard) lists her uses of the "communal" BBC Micro. Turn on your recorders as this TV clip ends with a data transmission! But how, in bygone online times, have modems been used...

Random pictures:
* A Minicom IV from Zork I and a modem inside a telephone.
* 1958! from Techradar's a history of modems.
* Radio Shack hardware from a Vintage Computer Forum discussion on Are dial-up modems useful for anything?.

Some modem uses from back in the day:
- A Livermore Model B modem is used to connect to a remote UNIX system. Features a Teletypewriter in action.
- In 1985, The Computer Chronicles features modems, bulletin boards, telecommuting, and The Well.
- A few tricks for getting old laptops back online.

More random pictures:
* A naked coupler from Hackaday Retro Edition: Hackadaying at 300 baud.
* The 307 from SQUEEEEE! Microsoft goes retro with pay-by-squawk NFC tech.
* The AT&T Sceptre Videotex Terminal from Vintage Computing and Gamings retro scan of the week Gather 'Round the Videotex.

And more modem uses that remind of vintage online times:
- What does "modem" mean? Commodore C64 man will explain.
- The harsh sound of a Commodore C64 dialup using a Model 1670 1200bps Modem.
- In which Marmalade the cat is undisturbed by his owner dialling up a 1988 BBS (one hour a day maximum usage).

More random pictures:
* Anderson Jacobson coupler from BT pulls the plug on 56K dial-up.
* 28.8 PC Card Fax Modem from Circuit City Flyer - July, 1996 and What Black Friday Looked Like in 1996.
* General DataComm modem from Zenotron on Mystery Circuits.

Previously on MetaFilter:
- Dynamic spectrogram of dial-up modem handshake sounds.
- Imagine turning on your home computer to read the newspaper!
- 300 baud of awesome in a wooden box.
- More modem sounds, linked from a comment by loquacious.
- From this post, Connecting IBM 5155 (IBM portable) to the web.
- From 2007, not_on_display describes DiversiDial.
- From 2006, GuyZero introduces Telidon.

Some more random pictures:
* Konex acoustic coupler from a forum thread about landline phone recorders.
* 300 baud modem from My First PC Weighed 25 Pounds.
* 110 Baud Modem from SCS's 110 Baud Modem which is part of William Bader's IT museum online gallery.

Bonus! YouTube user "Most relaxing sounds and videos" brings us 60 minutes of dial-up modem sounds, noise, 56k, and old internet connections.
posted by Wordshore (30 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

For a while when I was a kid, we had a computer, a fax machine, two phones lines, but no printer. I thought I was quite clever turning in book reports on thermal paper.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 10:09 AM on March 19, 2016 [8 favorites]

Back in the 80s, I would bangpath emails across the BBS system using FidoNet from our C-64 with 300baud modem.

From about 1988 until 1993 or so, my main internet access was using an AT&T dumb terminal and a 2400baud modem to dial into a community access point for the local university Unix system. Conquer, MUDs, email, irc, GOPHER, telnet, USEnet, vi... Good times.

Early-to-mid 90s were 56K modem times, heady speeds. A new version of Netscape Navigator would be released and it would take 8 hours to download. Web pages were static and HTML and 'lite page design" were all the rage.

Early internet stuff was an adventure, and this is an awesome post. Much to dig into! Thanks!
posted by hippybear at 10:29 AM on March 19, 2016 [7 favorites]

The UK still had dial phones in the '80s?
posted by octothorpe at 10:36 AM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

My sister still has a working dial phone on the wall in her kitchen.

Once again, I find myself in vain trying to find a picture of the first modem type I saw, which would have been in 1973. I'm sure it was from Bell, and 103-compatible, but it was not like the 103 pictured in one of the above links.
It would not have been dial-up, but used a leased line, so no handset. It looked like, and was about the same size as a VCR- lights on the front.
Can't find it anywhere.
posted by MtDewd at 10:46 AM on March 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I still have my Hayes Micromodem II 300 baud modem. It makes a really nice sanding block.
posted by AnodeCathode at 10:47 AM on March 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

1988 - traded away the color monitor that came with a Mac II (my second new computer, with upgrades it lasted at least six years). In exchange I got a black and white monitor, a 1200 baud modem (and something else I think - doesn't matter what).

Best. Deal. Ever.
posted by johnabbe at 11:09 AM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

In the late 60s, I took a grade school computer class. We typed our simple programs on the teletype while it was offline. It punched a paper tape while it printed each character on the roll of printer paper. Each row of holes in the tape is one byte. We'd end up with a small roll of tape, maybe 3 to 10 feet long.

Then, dial the timeshare computer phone number, put the handset in the acoustic coupler, and start the tape reader. The program loaded into memory, and printed it's results (or the error messages) on the teletype printer. We had no permanent storage at the timeshare.

This actually was a good intro to computers, and I was less intimidated when I got to college in the early 70s and used the big IBM mainframe with punch cards, and later with green screens. It had a gigantic 4MB memory, and could process a batch job in just seconds.
posted by jjj606 at 11:14 AM on March 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

When I worked at NOAA in the early 80s we were connected to a 'supercomputer' (a Cray, of course); when I entered a typo, the Cray would respond "bad card" - that would crack me up. I think in the 4 years I worked at NOAA, I managed to use up one second of the Cray's CPU time. It was wonderful to work with scientists - they could explain why the bubbles in our beer behaved the way they did.
posted by GrimJack at 12:07 PM on March 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

Even though it's 2016, there are a few of us who still have no choice but to use a modem to connect to the Internet. I'm 2-3 miles from the end of my local cable television line, so no cable broadband. I'm 9+ miles of crappy copper from my nearest CO so no phone based broadband. I refuse to pay the truly ridiculous prices for satellite broadband. We do have a tower based long distance Wifi company in our area, but unfortunately I live in a little hollow surrounded by trees, so that's out. So me and my little US Robotics 56K modem have learned to live with the slower speeds. And you'd be surprised how much I can be done with a phone line and a modem. And it gives a good excuse to head out to a pub with an open wifi when it's time to do updates.
posted by jgaiser at 12:17 PM on March 19, 2016 [12 favorites]

CBC Digital Archives killed my old like but here's a CBC TV news piece on Telidon.
posted by GuyZero at 12:33 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

And you'd be surprised how much I can be done with a phone line and a modem.

I'd actually imagine quite a bit.

On one hand, you could be using browser extensions to block all images and multimedia, as well as the obvious NoScript and Ghostery, which would make dealing with the modern web not all too difficult as long your main thrust is text-based or small-image-based.

On the other hand, there's also a good deal you could do via SSH and connecting to another box with a faster connection, perhaps even allowing you to download large files over long periods of time, if a pub is unavailable.
posted by deadaluspark at 12:36 PM on March 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

My first modem was a 60 baud Volksmodem with an acoustic coupler.
posted by humanfont at 12:47 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd actually imagine quite a bit.

A lot of websites are surprisingly friendly to slower connections, including MetaFilter. There a few (I'm looking at you CNN) that I've learned to not visit. No Java. No flash. Ghostery and AdBlock helps. I'll have to take a look at NoScript. Tried it a couple years ago and wasn't satisfied with the results. Email is no problem. I do block multimedia, but not all images. Again depending on the site, I willing to wait for some images to load. I hadn't thought about the SSH idea. I do have a friend who *does* have broadband and she has an always-on Linux machine. Hmmm? I need to think about that. Need to punch a whole in her firewall and of course coordinate with her, but that could be a usable option.
posted by jgaiser at 1:00 PM on March 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

On one hand, you could be using browser extensions to block all images and multimedia, as well as the obvious NoScript and Ghostery, which would make dealing with the modern web not all too difficult as long your main thrust is text-based or small-image-based.

There is actually a whole genre of software to deal with this, which tend to be called web accelerators. Popular both with people who have dial up, and people who only have 2g data (pre-edge 2g is similar speed to dialup, and is still around more than you would think). Opera MAX/Opera Mini are quite popular in this space, but there is literally hundreds of products that do everything from recompress images to something sensible on a large server somewhere, even in flash files, minifying javascript, and in some cases literally replacing it with other equivalent, but smaller, javascript. it's actually a pretty cool field. The more advanced ones will also prefetch pages on idle, and even attempt to recompress video - this is mostly for data savings on low-broadband rather than dialup, of course, but if you stay away from video and use the right software the modern web can be shockingly useful on dialup!
posted by jaymzjulian at 1:10 PM on March 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

The UK still had dial phones in the '80s?

Worse than that, there was (and is still) no free local calling in the US style. Even had I been able to afford a modem, I would never have been able to afford the calls. (I couldn't understand how Americans could do it until I learned about local free calling).

In fact, the dialup internet didn't really take off in the UK until services starting offer low-cost national calling numbers, and ultimately free-to-call numbers.
posted by bonaldi at 1:40 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Micronet 800 - named because it was at *800# on the Prestel system; all pages were accessible using telephone keypads on systems with no alphanumeric keyboards - was the home of much early 80s online home computer shenanigans. The Midnight Micronetters Club was a sort of early chat system, often used for drunken naughtiness (the nickname was the Midnight Masturbators), and a number of early hackers were involved in various ways. Some went on to do the Great Prestel Hack,, which saw the chairman of BT carpeted by Prince Philip _and_ handbagged by Thatcher, but that's another story. (There are many...)

The editor of Micronet was one David Babsky, an eccentric plump bearded high-energy gnome of a chap who liked putting deliberate navigation link errors on the site to encourage surprise and delight, and whose name should not be forgotten.

You accessed Prestel using 1200/75 bps modems, which made uploading anything drastically slow, but they were the cheapest and most widely accessible modems for home computers in the UK at the time. My first one was a Prism VTX5000, a ZX Spectrum modem that sat under the Speccy and connected through a Z80 bus ribbon cable - the Spectrum having no serial IO of any kind. The terminal program was a hybrid BASIC/machine code affair that loaded from ROM and managed the neat trick of emulating the 40x25 character-based Prestel screen in the Spectrum's 256x192 - but colour only 32x24 - bitmapped display. (This is, of course, impossible, but they did very well.) You could take that over and actually turn the Spectrum into a rather idiosyncratic Prestel editor, but you wouldn't want to (but we did anyway): the BBC Micro cheated by having a dedicated Viewdata mode (Mode 7) chip, which ruined the fun.

If your computer had RS232 (again, the BBC Micro, snotty box that it was), you would probably have a Miracle WS 2000 modem, which had many more modes (including ones not approved by the telco, but which were useful for US BBS work and which you could enable quite easily). That was based on the AMD AM7910 "World Modem" chip, which was very advanced for its day - what AMD did before processors - and which was easy enough to design around that a number of colourful chancers produced a variety of more-or-less legal modems I forget many of the names at this distance; one such purveyor ended up in prison for far nastier crimes, but nearly escaped in a light aircraft He would have, too, if his accomplice had remembered to connect the battery.

Fun times.
posted by Devonian at 1:43 PM on March 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

From 1983-TV Ontario's Bits and Bytes, explaining what a Modem is.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 1:54 PM on March 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

Just to be pedantic, AMD has been copying and sometimes improving on Intel chips for almost as long as they've been a company. Their first microcode cross licensing deal with Intel was in the 70s.
posted by wotsac at 3:34 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

The UK still had dial phones in the '80s?

Growing up in Canada we still had to have a dial phone in the 90's, and a party line, which made dialing up tough, not only did the household hear SQEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAA when they picked up the phone, the neighbors all did too!
posted by Cosine at 4:02 PM on March 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Most of the North America would have retained compatibility with rotary phones will into the 90's even though most people had touch-tone phones by then. I remember paying a fee for touch-tone service even though at that point all the CO equipment was natively touch-tone and they had compatibility hardware to handle rotary phones.
posted by GuyZero at 4:40 PM on March 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

ShadyTel set up a POTS network at ToorCamp a couple of years ago, so I bought this old Anderson Jacobson acoustic coupler along, as well as a modern USB modem and set up the world's most pointless hyperlocal BBS. Good times!

I still love the industrial design of the old Silent 700.

(dumb old person story: we got the acoustic coupler as part of a larger haul that included several PDP11/34s, VT100s, etc.-- basically the contents of a computer lab that had been in a storage locker in the Bronx for about three decades. The person who was giving us the equipment was the son of the person who had squirreled it all away, and didn't really know what most of it was. When I asked if we could have the acoustic coupler as well, he asked what it did. "It's an acoustic modem," I told him. "You had to plug your phone into it, and it would communicate using audio tones over the speaker and microphone." He took out his iphone, looked at it in bewilderment for a second, and asked "you plug it in how?")
posted by phooky at 4:41 PM on March 19, 2016 [6 favorites]

In NZ in the mid-eighties, we still had a phone where you wound the handle on the side and asked the operator to connect you. Also, a party line. I think we were the last town to have operators.

This video was incredible, though. I was especially amazed by the software transmission via audio at the end. I seem to recall something in the news a few months back about a new thing where computers could transmit data to each other via audio signals, and it turns out that what's old is new again...
posted by lollusc at 6:01 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

If your ears are bleeding, that means you probably listened to the end of the video above the fold. Hunting around, someone on Reddit did a good job of decoding the data within the transmission. Turns out when you load it into your 1984 computer, it's a simple crossword puzzle.
posted by Wordshore at 6:30 PM on March 19, 2016 [6 favorites]

I miss the modem tones. Sure you can listen to a recording, but it's not the same. Also Gopher. Wasn't there some talk of a metafilter gopher server at some point?
posted by humanfont at 7:01 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

My first modem was a 300-baud that plugged in to the back of my Commodore 64. Several guys in my C=64 club worked for AT&T (or US West, depending on the year) and hooked me up with a surplus 1200 bps rig. It didn't require plugging a handset into cups, but there was no autodialer, so I had to dial with a phone attached to the modem, then (I think) flip a switch.

Being club president, I had five free hours a month on Q-Link, the Commodore online service that eventually became America OnLine. I'm sure I spent more than five hours a month on that service, but I never got charged with it.

A few years later, having graduated to an IBM-compatible with a 40MB hard drive and a 2400 bps modem, I fulfilled a dream and scored a Kaypro-10, a CP/M-based luggable with a 10MB hard drive and built-in 300 bps modem. I set up a UUCP account with a local provider to transfer email and netnews. This was 1993 or so, just on the cusp of the web and general awareness of the Internet.

I also remember working at a law firm in the '90s managing 9600 bps dialup links between offices to exchange email and calendar information using Novell Groupwise. The main office in Seattle would dial the Bellevue and Tacoma offices and act as a central hub for the local GroupWise servers. We also had a bank of dial-in modems for attorneys wanting to use Citrix thin clients for remote work.

I wasn't able to finally to escape dealing with modems until last year, when my mom, who refused to spend the money on broadband for her infrequent email use, moved into a retirement community and now happily wanders down to the computer lab to check her email, and I don't have to manage her computer anymore!
posted by lhauser at 8:07 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Wasn't there some talk of a metafilter gopher server at some point?

Click on the MetaFilter link in the post :)
posted by Wordshore at 3:55 AM on March 20, 2016

We do have a tower based long distance Wifi company in our area, but unfortunately I live in a little hollow surrounded by trees, so that's out.

Trees can make great supports for antennas ... and masts to get the antenna higher. There is an island community in WA state that is (or at least was) served by broadband with the receiving antenna up a tree. The trick is getting power to the relay up the tree.
posted by Twang at 3:05 PM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Trees can make great supports for antennas ... and masts to get the antenna higher. There is an island community in WA state that is (or at least was) served by broadband with the receiving antenna up a tree. The trick is getting power to the relay up the tree.

You're probably thinking of Orcas Island's Doe Bay Internet Users Association. More details in this Wired article.

Orcas Island is playing host to this year's ToorCamp, the US Hacker Camp. ToorCamp typically features ShadyTel, a group that sets up a local POTS and GSM network during the festival. Bring your own rotary phone!
posted by zamboni at 7:16 AM on March 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

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