Back in the day . . .
June 1, 2002 9:58 PM   Subscribe

Back in the day . . . Remembering a time when the BBS was king.
posted by dogmatic (60 comments total)
1995: Arguing over the deeper meaning of Akira and the intellectual value of Morissey, all the while downloading 16 zipped floppy disks of Primal Rage. Things were so much simpler then.
posted by dogmatic at 10:09 PM on June 1, 2002

Dude ... if your memories of the era are mostly from 1995 (mere weeks ago), you missed out on the golden age.
posted by RavinDave at 10:20 PM on June 1, 2002

This is a great article. I first got online in 1984 on BBSs in the metro DC area, and so much of this rings true for me, including the storyboards and the parties with people ten years older. I'm still in touch with a few of the people I met via BBSs.

On preview: hell, by 1995, the web had been built. BBSs were just a different era.
posted by swerve at 10:29 PM on June 1, 2002

Sigh. I guess I just caught on too late. I signed on in 1994 (I was 15 at the time), but have deep respect for those who communicated at 300 bps. I started at 2400.
posted by dogmatic at 10:32 PM on June 1, 2002

I'm of the 2400 baud era myself.. must have been the early nineties. Squarely in the age of Tradewars and ACiD graphics packs. I remember having the extended ASCII chart memorized, but now I don't even remember what the code for the big solid block was.


Oh yeah, and this guy from England used to call up a popular local board, and finally he flew in to meet everybody, and my parents wouldn't let me go because they thought he must be a pervert. Then he murdered everybody. Those were the days.
posted by Hildago at 11:02 PM on June 1, 2002

300 baud Apple Cat modem. Upgraded it to 1200, and it felt like greased lightning.

Anyone remember "break-typing?"
posted by Fofer at 11:09 PM on June 1, 2002

Got my first modem in 1987 and it was one of those brand-new 2400 bps models. It was a steal at $150. Technically, they're actually 600 baud, but each baud encodes 4 bits. (Remember arguing about that shit?)
posted by kindall at 11:17 PM on June 1, 2002

Then he murdered everybody.

You're kidding, right?
posted by dogmatic at 11:19 PM on June 1, 2002

I remember BBSing for a while when a friend of mine gave me the number for the Cleveland Freenet (which honest to god, I still remember about thirteen years later). It was like no BBS I ever saw, he said, a twinkle of the convert in his eyes. So I dialed that number. And dialed it and dialed it and dialed it and...

I probably tied up my house's phoneline for almost three months trying to get in. Of course, my attempts were interspersed with my regular BBS habits, so it's not surprising that I was successful into turning my phone number into a twenty-four hour busy signal.

But then one day I finally got in. A Cleveland skyline, rendered in ASCII art, slowly scrolled up the screen, one character at a time. And then I got to the login. I didn't have a login. And the only way to get a login was to write a LETTER and MAIL it to them. Then you'd get a login.

So I did.

A few weeks later I got the login in the mail and I spent another three months trying to dialin. This time, when I finally got in, my hands were shaking. I prayed that someone in the house wouldn't pick up a phone and drop the connection. I typed in my new login, and the screen filled with 7 or 8 options. Email, access to the Cleveland Public Library online catalog, archived mailing lists, and so on. I should have been amazed. But instead I looked up and down the screen, smirked, and said:

Where are all the downloads?

And I logged off in frustration.

(Don't get me started [self-link] on the agony I suffered when my college decided to discontinue their VAX system five years after I graduated from college and really had no excuse to use it anymore.)
posted by turaho at 11:24 PM on June 1, 2002

I was a 1200 baud kid. And an Atari kid at that. My 520 ST guided me through adolescence, something that I freely admit to this day. I don't really keep the same nostalgia that most do about BBSes though...the Web has pretty much replaced them for me.
posted by Succa at 11:48 PM on June 1, 2002

This is some great timing -- I just started into MUDS again. Nice to see a lot of this still exists.

I started in at 1200. I remember a few years later when a friend of mine actually had a 9600 baud. I remember lying awake thinking of how fast door games would play on it.
posted by jragon at 11:53 PM on June 1, 2002

And while we're talking about it, I've gotta ask -- was anyone here on "Readers of the Lost Ark" BBS in the DC Metro area in the early 90s?
posted by jragon at 11:55 PM on June 1, 2002

Hold on ... isn't Metafilter just a bulletin board?

[thinks for a second]

Oh ... I see ....
posted by feelinglistless at 1:44 AM on June 2, 2002

Yeah, I started with a 300 baud C64 modem.

I even ran several BBSs, back in the day. Still do, sorta. But it's nowhere near the same.

I ran a board in New Fairfield Connecticut, in the early 80's, off my C64 called BOHEMIA... like all C64 bbss, it specialized in warez. I covetted the 1 megabyte disk drive available, but there was no way I could afford one. Swapped the 320k diskette daily with "fresh warez."

Later, I wrote a BBS program called "Bibliolink" which pretended to be a library system, but attentive users were supposed to realize that the library side was just a front, and if they paid attention to little codes in the lower corner, they could access the special elite message and file trading section. After 6 months, not a single user ever figured it out.

Years later, I moved to DC and inherited Crunchland when the old sysop got fed up. 5 lines. L.O.R.D. Popwords. After we moved the BBS onto the internet in '97, we had a party, and burned the main server's CPU, hard disk drive and memory on a pyre.
posted by crunchland at 3:29 AM on June 2, 2002

3 words...


Ahhh... the 3pm bliss.
posted by fnord_prefect at 4:31 AM on June 2, 2002

I started using BBSes in 1983 by using an acoustic modem at 110 baud that output to a printer at my mother's real-estate office. They never seemed to notice that the paper was disappearing each weekend.

I got into them because of WarGames and even wrote a wardialer on my Commodore 64. Fortunately I lacked the skills to do anything with that information.

BBSing was so inferior to the Web that the comparison hurts my finely honed sense of nostalgia, but one thing I do miss is the way they brought people from the same area together. I made several good friends from Dallas BBSes and BBS parties, as as a teen computer geek it was nice to find like-minded people.
posted by rcade at 4:42 AM on June 2, 2002

Ah yes... FidoNet... the first "Internet" as far as I'm concerned.

Back when I was a sysop of my own FidoNet BBS (which was later an Opus system), I became the Region 18 host of FidoNet's Echomail. (Think Usenet/Email rolled into one.) My BBS, The CompuNet Zone (we all had hi-tech sounding names back then) was the only hub in my local area (Huntsville AL) to the EchoMail system - which made my BBS extremely popular.

So much so one user upgraded my 300/1200 baud modem personally by buying me a 2400 baud modem so he could get his EchoMail faster.

Huntsville AL was an interesting BBS community back then, especially when the real-life "WarGames" happened with several high school kids breaking into the local NASA computers.

Ah, the good ole days...
posted by jca at 5:06 AM on June 2, 2002

Wow, that brings back memories. Good, syrupy, teenage memories at that.

I was a sysop for three years in Connecticut in the 90s, eventually running a Maximus system with customized ANSI login screens and menus. And online games, so many online games. Tradewars, LORD, The Pit, Solar Realms Elite, Pimpwars..

I tried to get people to participate in more discussion areas, but it was mostly fruitless. I compensated by subscribing to some Fidonet groups ("echos") and being a mail gateway for the local phone exchange.

I too went to user meetings at Burger King with people 10 years older, absorbed The Conscience of a Hacker with admiration and empathy, met lots of shy techy people I wouldn't have otherwise known, and mostly kept the phone line tied up to the chagrin of everybody.

What wonderful lingo attached to the ancient art of local phone exchange hopping - echohaulers, downlinks, hubs, subhubs, etc. Identifying yourself with something like 1:141/256 instead of a domain name.

Hold on ... isn't Metafilter just a bulletin board?

And a good one at that. Subconsciously, I think that's why after a couple of months of lurking here at Mefi, I resurrected the Prince Valium handle after so many years when I created an account.
posted by PrinceValium at 5:14 AM on June 2, 2002

I had two BBSes. I loved it, as much as I love the net today. Honestly I don't miss the limitation of one or two telephone lines, nor the 2400 modems. A good web page and a forum today can reach thousand of persons in a few seconds, isn't that at the end a BBS ?

What I really miss is the "pioneer" sensation :) , but apparently the best bbs sysops and users moved to net and I think they brought the invaluable experience of maintining and enjoying electronic communities.

The only big difference is the cost of communication and the cost of moving data around the world ; now it's appreciabily low, hope it remains so because communication is so badly needed, the net can only help it.
posted by elpapacito at 5:15 AM on June 2, 2002

Yeah, "War Games" might have been the apex of that era. Beforehand, our numbers were managable and people kept to their favorite haunts pretty much. Trust was abundant; I had accounts on odd systems all over the country -- all you had to do was "ask" in most cases. Back then, I had just figured out how to use "Telenet" (*NOT* "telnet"), which served as a gateway to route you all around the US and Europe, thus avoiding long distance charges. (It was meant for businesses, but there were ways around that -- anyone else remember that?). My favorite well-known site was OSUNY's BBS.

Then "War Games" hit. I can only compare that to AOL's unleashing of a bazillion rubes en masse into UseNet several years back. Those nifty free accounts started drying up -- we went from "trusted explorers" to "system-cracker-wannabees" overnight it seemed.

posted by RavinDave at 5:31 AM on June 2, 2002

I still want to know if that English chap really murdered everyone.
posted by internook at 6:36 AM on June 2, 2002

acid art packs. There is a memory worth recalling!
posted by srboisvert at 7:05 AM on June 2, 2002

Ah, nice story. . . Remembering a time when Salon was king.
posted by Eamon at 7:13 AM on June 2, 2002

Ah, yes. I ran a BBS in Tucson for a while called the Virtual Village. And was a regular on one called the Wall, which was the best ever (VERY like Mefi without the links). And MUDs...I created a large environment on one of the oldest muds, Evil!MUD, which is still there to this day. Good times.
posted by rushmc at 7:16 AM on June 2, 2002

I lost many a night to tradewars. God, those door games rocked.

On a side note:
No, really, what's up with that English guy?
posted by Localemperor at 7:34 AM on June 2, 2002

Hmm... I feel left out. I'd always dial up to the local community college and download shareware. Of course I remember the counter to how long you could be on. I just remember it being a big deal to be able to dial up and get a new duke nukem and what not.
posted by geoff. at 7:43 AM on June 2, 2002

Tradewards, Barren Realms Elite, FrontDoor for your echomail...

We had a funeral here in Ottawa once, for a rival echomail network (RFN, or Ratio-Free Net) after they fell apart. Rented a space, and had the region hubs wear black suits and carry a child's coffin through downtown, with a motherboard, modem, and nodelist inside it. I believe we played Ministry's Psalm 69 for the wake.

As an aside, does anyone else remember when 1337 actually was?
posted by Jairus at 9:48 AM on June 2, 2002

I also started on a 300 baud VicModem, hooked up to my Commodore 64. Since most people didn't want to pay long-distance fees, we generally only called boards in your local area. Unlike most web-based forums like Metafilter, the BBS scene was a community organized by location in addition to interest, which made real-life events much more commonplace.
posted by waxpancake at 10:06 AM on June 2, 2002

I didn't think this article was that great -- even Salon has done better in the past. But hey, we seem to be doing the nostalgia bit -- again -- so here I go. I see Rogers has already claimed the 110-baud record. I was a 300-baud kid, using a C64, in a small city that had only around 3 BBSes. Later, I got to Chicago, and after some poking around, found a particular multi-line public Unix system that was a step-child, more or less, of the "first BBS". I got to meet the guy who invented the XMODEM protocol. They ran the picospan conferencing software, which has some close resemblances to Metafilter I've previously noted. That place was my home for a while after that, and the Unix basis meant that I was connected to the internet pretty early on, beginning with uucp mail and later, newsgroups. One day the sysop decided to install an Apache precursor and we all built home pages.
posted by dhartung at 10:28 AM on June 2, 2002

Er, so, remind me: What happened with that English fellow?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:37 AM on June 2, 2002

The world's finest acronym:

FOSSIL driver
Fido Opus Seadog Standard Interface Layer

My login ID goes back to late 80's/early 90's era BBS's. At a previous job I worked with a couple members of iCE, and before that with folks that ran some prominent multi-line DC boards.

"Uh, who are those guys in your basement?"

"They're users from Spain. They're hanging out for a few weeks."
posted by NortonDC at 11:56 AM on June 2, 2002

Ahh - the memories... I was a Commie64 kid as well.. I remember having to spend months talking my parents into buying me that little 300/1200 modem that plugged into the back, and THEN telling them I wanted my own phone line hehehe.

Back in South Florida, I remember the stories of the guy that helped design WW IV privatly, and sold his peices to the company that made WWIII... thus funding most of his college tuition at UMiami. (Not that I necessarily belive them NOW, but at the time... WOW)

I really do miss those days sometimes, the "family" atmosphere, knowing everyone on your local board by name, and playing TW and others for 12 hour sessions...

I really wonder what happened to some of them... FlyonWall, Samantha, shadowfax, et al...
posted by niteHawk at 12:00 PM on June 2, 2002

"Tradewars, LORD, The Pit, Solar Realms Elite, Pimpwars.. "


i started out on a 900, with phone numbers found in the back of a computer shopper. putzed around on sites around north jersey for a while, and eventually found the really cool underground sites... found ACiD and iNC and other groups with lowercase i's and altcap names...

going to places run on WildCat and whatnot... using terminate and such...

then it was on to telnet, tymnet... yadda yadda. talking to people in france, snooping around bank screens... reading txt files about how to make bombs and cultural revolutions...

next thing i know, i'm smoking pot and listening to ministry in an attic with a group of kids miles away from home....

BBSs: the true gateway drug.
posted by jcterminal at 12:01 PM on June 2, 2002

speaking of...

"... 992, 667; 665; 464 --- they were my 'hood. Sometimes when I was feeling adventurous I might go beyond, out to the outer reaches of (201) --- none of that (908) crap back then --- but rarely farther. Go beyond (201), man, and you might, like, fall off the planet. They said the world just stopped out there, a big-ass virtual cliff right on the fuzzy black line in the phone book map."

908 was my stomping grounds. man, i'd say he missed out, but it sounds like he had a fine old time regardless.

/me is wistfully nostalgic.
posted by jcterminal at 12:09 PM on June 2, 2002

yep. had a bbs. 228:4. fido, opus, maximus. echomail. fidonet news. organizer and first net coord for net 228. ran on a leading edge with a [gasp] 30 meg drive. "30 megs? Nice bbs machine...", said a friend at the time, setting it all in motion.
posted by quonsar at 12:27 PM on June 2, 2002

Ooh, ooh! Don't forget the WildCat vs PBBS vs WWIV flame wars. Of course, everyone knew that WC was the best. :)
posted by fnord_prefect at 12:57 PM on June 2, 2002

that english murder dude might still be out there...
posted by kliuless at 1:03 PM on June 2, 2002

I had an Apple //e with a Novation Apple-cat and Tele-cat BBS software. I was a 13 year old sysop with a BBS getting sometimes *20* visits a day. I never could afford the Sider 10MB hard drive. It was $499 and there was no way I could raise that kind of cash.
posted by goto11 at 2:09 PM on June 2, 2002

510... represent!

I starting calling bbses on a 1200 baud modem on an early mac... like in about '86. I still remember the day they extended the local calling area to include the WHOLE 510 area code and, suddenly, Berkeley was a local call.

Remember all those weird project to bring graphical front ends to the boards? It all seems so... quaint now.

At any rate... I was doing a search for my own name a few months ago (yeah... ego surfin') and discovered that one of my old boards went internet along with one of the text files that I wrote and uploaded when I was like 14.

... by the way, WWIV was definitely the best.... and tradewars ain't dead -- it's still out there, updated for the modern age. I believe there are still a number of telnet-able tw servers out there, as well as some kind of webified version.
posted by ph00dz at 2:40 PM on June 2, 2002

ph00dz: WWIV is such a blatant WC knockoff, it makes my toes burn.
posted by fnord_prefect at 2:50 PM on June 2, 2002

"510... represent!"

Back in the day, there was no 510. It was all one big 415. The introduction of 510 put one of the last nails in the coffin as far as I'm concerned. Imagine all those poor guys on the wrong side of the bridge, have to dial a full 10 digits to hit Tic Tac Toe and the Wave.
posted by majick at 3:38 PM on June 2, 2002

1984, Arizona: Got a modem for my TI-99/4A. 300 baud acoustic. Screen would go nuts whenever my mom yelled down the hall that it was dinnertime. Upgraded to Atari 800XL, and 1200 baud. Then to the Atari 130XE, where I stayed for some time. Somewhere in the 90s, someone finally found it in their heart to donate a PC to me.

The BBS in the 602 was Apollo, hands down.
posted by at 4:02 PM on June 2, 2002

I long time ago I discovered that if a Coleco Adam modem (300 baud) is placed in a small town (with 0-1 local BBSs), one will get costly long distance phone bills due to calling exciting boards elsewhere.
posted by gluechunk at 5:19 PM on June 2, 2002

Chastity's Playhouse was the best in the Valley (818)...
posted by kfury at 6:04 PM on June 2, 2002

What's all this about an English murderer? Did he kill John Lennon?
posted by yhbc at 6:23 PM on June 2, 2002

I remember when I discovered chatting on Compuserve, which had some outrageous hourly fee, and my mom wanting to kill me after I racked up $900 in credit card charges in one month.
posted by crunchland at 7:45 PM on June 2, 2002

Looks like the English murderer got Hidalgo too, after all these years. Shouldn'ta spilled the beans...
posted by JDC8 at 8:35 PM on June 2, 2002

LOL, This is trully nostalgic ! I used to be in ACiD once. Used to be an ascii/lit artist. those were the days.
posted by martz at 1:04 AM on June 3, 2002

I was in iCE, the transient iCE:TNO and ACiD. It'd be nicer to brag about if I hadn't sucked compared to most of the others. Like Jed, for instance.

I'd like to find some of his old ANSI animations and maybe an easy way to view them.
posted by frenetic at 4:24 AM on June 3, 2002

Posted at the end of this thread for posterity's sake: 201 area code, 300/1200 baud in 1987 on my Apple //c, d-dial and BBS veteran both. I called many a 2AM-BBS in my day.

Freshman year of college I was the only guy on my hall who dialed into the vax to check email. By sophomore year the campus was wired with Ethernet, and my online world would never be the same.
posted by werty at 7:03 AM on June 3, 2002

305 repraZENTIN'...

I remember the first time I say my pal's BBS (called The Atlanta Penitentiary) and I thought it was something akin to magic. And the first time I saw a multi-user BBS (Moonshae, Logicom), I thought I had died and gone to geek heaven.

"Back in my day, we had to dial into computers with our phones! One at a time, usually! And they went slow! So slow you could see the text being written on the screen!"
posted by solistrato at 8:12 AM on June 3, 2002

Boards I ran over the years in several cities pop up on these lists...I remember my first BBS, in 1982, run part-time on a Commodore 64 at 300 baud. I remember the $150/month phone bills I was getting at a time when I was making $9,000/year. I remember sitting in front of my BBS as a sysop, at first wishing that someone would call the stupid thing and then usually ending up wishing that people would STOP. I remember running DoubleDOS so I could run more than one node on one machine. I remember buying a Perstor controller that doubled the capacity of my 20-meg hard drive, turning me into an online sysop ubergeek. Aah, yes...
posted by Phaedrus at 9:10 AM on June 3, 2002! [and before all those damn area code splits]

digital decay wasn't my first bbs, but it's the only one that's still around...

la habra connection, shadow castle, second ammendment, emerald isle. i miss them all. i also miss the days where having a 4800 baud modem and three megs of t-philez gave you enough of a qualification to become the co-sysop of the h/p section on an underground board. those were the good old days, man.
posted by boogah at 11:37 AM on June 3, 2002

WildCat; phah.

Maximus, lads. :-)

1:3603/18, I believe we were, my roommate and I. Hacker's Haven ran on many different machines, starting out on an Atari 800 (no joke).
posted by baylink at 1:49 PM on June 3, 2002

The English guy didn't actually kill everybody. Some of them escaped and limped off into the woods. It was a happy ending all around.

The saddest thing in the world is, after 6-7 years of absence, I do a google search for BBS' in my area code, and find that the once-vibrant community is now made up of 2-3 boards, solely devoted to 2nd Amendment advocacy and fundamentalist Christianity. I think I actually wept, then hastily deleted Terminate.
posted by Hildago at 2:01 PM on June 3, 2002

I not only sysoped a BBS (and still do), but I met my husband via that very same BBS. (I think we must be geeks!)

Seattle BBSes peaked (in sheer numbers -- I can't speak about quality, because I was a latecomer to the phenomenon myself) in about 1992. There were just so many BBSes to call... message BBSes (like the one I ran), game BBSes, files BBSes. It was a lot of fun. And then, suddenly, everyone got Internet access and boards started dropping like flies. Mine stayed up out of sheer stubbornness and inertia.

We were talking about taking down my BBS on it's 10th birthday, with a big blow-out reunion/party... but during the year before the birthday, the board started to "happen" again. We made it telnettable, so people could log-in from their Internet accounts, and multi-user. (We also eventually added chat, which the BBS never had in the old single-user days.) People from the past started to return, and newbies started to show up, too. Now it's quite busy. We do still have the phone line, but the majority of callers telnet in. Of course, we didn't take the board down on its tenth birthday after all.

So, I wouldn't say that BBSes are completely dead yet. Obviously, bulletin boards such as MeFi are quite common on the Web; old-school BBSes are just another way of doing the same thing, and there is still room for that.

Oh, yeah -- text-only BBSes are much faster than web-based systems. For that reason, at least, they are definitely worth visiting. Reading the BBS though OS X's Terminal program... so nice.
posted by litlnemo at 4:37 PM on June 3, 2002

I was an active member of the Chicagoland Amiga BBS scene. Instead of Wildcat vs. whatever, it was CNET vs. AmiExpress (CNET being better by far, but the pirates loved AmiEx). One of my fondest memories was to be one of the first owners of the sexy USR 16.8K Duel standard modems on the sysop deal.

One of the things I miss is the cool feeling of logging on to a popular BBS and having the sysop breaking into chat with you. It felt like an audience with a King of sorts.
posted by john at 5:12 PM on June 3, 2002

Speaking of BBSes, two of my favorite places to visit in the early 90's were NASA's Spacelink (tons of imagery and scientific apps. Bird-dog, a satellite tracking program was among my favorites) and WC's BBS itself (hey, it had an 800 number). A true innovation was the gif2ascii converter...ah memories!

oh, and WC definitely ruled
posted by samsara at 5:13 PM on June 3, 2002

A documentary about BBSs is currently being put together by the person behind The site's pretty interesting and for those people who did use boards back then it's certainly worth checking out. For more on BBS history you might like to check out some of the links I've been collecting (*self link*):
posted by jedro at 7:43 AM on June 5, 2002

anyone 916?
posted by fishfucker at 5:41 PM on June 5, 2002

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