At the age of 17 I owned my first real personal computer. A 8086 XT Pc. It had a whopping 20 MB hard disk and a “color” screen. Monochrome “amber”, the referred to as the only color the screen could display. Booting took minutes, installing software took tweaking and knowledge, and all in all it was new, exciting and fun. And it was beige, of course. Back then … everything was beige.
One day, rumors started drifting my way : Other students told me about BBS’ s, mysterious computer systems hiding behind a telephone number. Managed by ‘SysOp’s’, another kind of super computer human who ‘controlled the system’. Most of them were underground and mysterious, some of them were a professional service. Some of them might have been pirates on a ship in the middle of the Caribian .. or maybe not.
I was intrigued. Intrigue turned to marvel, marvel to desire. A Modem had to be bought, installed and put to dear use. And so a journey began. With a modem installed the previous day, a terminal client on a floppy and a telephone number scribbled on a piece of paper I came home and sat down on my throne. Somewhat nervous I started the application and configured a new ‘Remote Host’. The telephone number of “De Digitale Stad” (The Digital City) in Amsterdam was entered and squeaking and whining a connection was made. “De Digitale stad” was connected to “The Internet” and therefor I became empowered with “The E-Mail” (Exclamation Mark to be inserted while reading this.) To actually use e-mail I had to use mutt, a text based email client. And after probing and prodding, I composed the first e-mail in my life.
After pondering and correcting, contemplating I came up with the body : “Test” (Poetry, pure and simple !). Lovely, but to whom should I sent it ? The only email address I knew was my own. Well,it was just as good as any ! (I was an interesting person to talk to..so why not ? ) The brand new address was carefully typed in the correct field and the “ctrl <s>” was pressed. ZOOMM … my first digital message began it’s way into cyberspace. (Pause a second … or two ) And there it arrived back to me ! Well that was quick! Marvelous new technology ! I yet had to learn that the message probably never even left the server, but the excitement of it all, the possibilities at my finger tips! I could e-mail with someone across the ocean! At no extra cost. Huzzah !
Since I didn’t really knew anybody across the pond and my curiosity wasn’t utterly fulfilled with the services on “De Digitale Stad”. And so I searched for some other BBS’s and found them. Lists with telephone numbers were exchanged again during school hours, with notes on how good and worthwhile they were. Connecting through a telephone line at 2400 baud gets you about 240 characters per second if I recall, and that was exactly what you got: Characters. In full color, where available.
And boy , those menu’s were filled with options: downloading .JPG’s, downloading .mod’s (the Camemans MP3), and chatting with other user(s). The plural of “User” only applied if the sysop had more than one landline. This was however rarely the case on any of the BBS’s I visited.
And of course there was the magical ability for ‘uploading’. Uploading to get credits, credits to allow downloading. What I downloaded I uploaded somewhere else to gain even more credits! Meanwhile, through the messaging boards I got to know people, learned about computers, learned how to set up a BBS myself and after a while people called into my system. Dropping files, typing messages, submitting stories, manuals, hacks and books. We were “surfing” at the cutting edge of technology!
But in a world which is always connected, offering enough bandwidth to stream HD movies and connect to thousands of online friends those systems were sure to fade away. Or were they?
Well, if you would start a telnet session to towel.blinkenlights.nl you will see an ascii version of starwars. Telnet to miku.acm.uiuc.edu and you will see Nyancat which is all nice, but telnet to xanadubbs.ca (open a shell and just type : “telnet xanadubbs.ca”) and you will end up in a secluded world, a singularity in CyberSpace, a BBS. Not searchable, but menu driven and ancient to the touch, it will be a journey back in time.
At quadrilion times the speed “we had back in the day..”. And rest asured : there are many more like it. No longer through a modem, no longer at a bitrate a professional typist could defeat with one hand, but the “feel” is as authentic as it ever was.
Hosting a BBS yourself ought to be do-able, just have a look at lunduke’s post here. Hmmm, I just might start one myself and when I do, I’ll scribble the address on a note here.
If you want to get a feel of how it really was, go to the Internet Archive here and watch the documentary. Make sure to keep an acoustic 300 baud modem in mind when the gazillion of bytes you need so much to be transformed in a HD movie take a bit longer to arrive at your enormous hard disk, than you would like. You live in a future we couldn’t foresee back then. Enjoy it.