Super Jayhawk (super_jayhawk) wrote,
Super Jayhawk
super_jayhawk

A Quarter Century Online

Twenty-five years ago, on March 4, 1983, I entered the online world for the very first time. I'd used modems for a few years before when my dad would let me use his teletype and log into the VAX at his work a few years beforehand, but this was a whole different deal. This was calling a BBS, a place where you could actually talk to someone. (Someone besides the operator of the mainframe, anyway).




The same model as my first modem (that wasn't built into a teletype), an acoustic Novation CAT (Courtesy of Wikipedia)





It was the morning of March and my friend Mark was staying over at my place for the weekend. He was one of my best friends back in the Junior High, and he always seemed to be one step ahead of me technologically. I had learned BASIC, and he already was messing with 6502 assembly. I'd learned about copying floppies with COPYA, and he was doing esoteric LockSmith 4.0 parameters to hack the copy protection on VisiCalc. I was so jealously competitive that I buried myself into the innards of the Apple II, and started learning everything about the computer, the processor, about data communications and telecommunications just to catch up to him, for at least the next twenty years, even though I haven't seen him since 1983. But I digress.




An Apple II Plus, similar to the one I used back to get online for the first time...only mine wasn't in a museum



The morning of March 4, 1983 we actually worked up the nerve to call this place called The Pirate Bay BBS in San Francisco.
I can still remember the number even 25 years later, but I won't post it here as it's obviously been reassigned to some poor unsuspecting sap. Mark brought this floppy with a "Terminal program" called TranSend which did something mind-blowing... it would use the serial port on the Apple II and connect it with the modem! We hand-dialed the number, and it was busy.. so we tried again and again for about 20 more minutes, and then we got the carrier on the other end that was the roar of the online world at the time. We hurriedly slapped the phone into the acoustic cups and hit the "Originate" button and the modems started singing together. LEDs on the modem flashed! Characters rolled across the screen at the breakneck pace of 30 characters per second, as if someone was typing to us! I had written programs for the Apple II before to make it do things, but I'd never seen something like this. It was like connecting to another world.

(This may not seem like great shakes to anyone in 2008 or even 1995, but in 1983 it was FM.. f'ing magic)

This was before there was really any such thing as ASCII art, when most BBS's only presented their text IN ALL UPPERCASE BECAUSE NO ONE HAD A LOWERCASE CHARACTER SET, and every BBS program supported "null character" line-printer delays because a lot of the devices used to go online were teletypes that would leave scroll-footage of paper behind the system. The online world was still more similar to teletypes, telegraphs and Telex networks than anything else. (In retrospect, this wasn't that long after The Forbin Project, and the online experience was more similar to that than to now)

We logged the entire session to a file on a floppy called "MAR 4 1983" which is why I can even remember the date. I printed it out for posterity and still have it somewhere. It has me logging into the Pirate Bay BBS and chatting with the sysop, they were one of the premiere BBS's of the time but charged a whopping $15/year to get to all their kool warez! (Alas, I never got a subscription, that was like three floppies back in the day)

And with that everything changed. I started going online to learn about other systems and call everywhere I could. Unfortunately at age 13 I didn't realize that calling in your same area code is NOT a local call, and ran up a helluva phone bill (lots of people did that when they first got into modeming). But it was some of the most addictively fascinating stuff ever. You got to see stuff other people were saying, on your own computer! OMG! It was like an Ouija Board for your computer, only the people you were talking to were still alive. I met people that weren't in the same school as me! When my parents would ask how I met them, I would tell them through the BBS's, and that just blew their minds! I might as well have said I met them through the looking-glass or in Narnia.

Pretty much every BBS at the time was a one-line affair run by a hobbyist out of their bedroom; you had to sit there and hand-dial the number (at least I had touch-tone) over and over again and just hope you got a carrier. Sometimes, to my surprise, the number would ring and the modem on the other end would start the answer tones-- but I hadn't turned the acoustic modem on yet. I got pretty good at whistling the carrier tone to the other end to keep it alive long enough for me to switch on the modem and slam it into the acoustic cups. (Newer "Direct-connect" modems could dial the number for you.. but I didn't get to mess with such newfangled things until a year later).

Online BBS's had really imaginative names like "CP/M Oxgate San Leandro" or "TBBS #14". But the really cool ones were places that had their own theme, like the Pirates Bay BBS, Mystic Caverns, or Montezuma's Revenge. Even with ASCII (you had to use your imagination in those days!) the textual description of the world you were encountering brought you into a whole new fascinating world. Some of the BBS's even had online games, and G-files that would tell you about all kinds of amazing and bizarre things! (I vividly remember some of them talking about the day that "tele-commuting" might be possible someday!)

It was in this world that I ran with the Apple II Pirate community back in the day, and learned assembly and how to crack software. I got to meet up with the BBS community, a bunch of people that banded together and hung out just because they all used computers, a rare thing at the time. I attended my first "pirate party" (they call them "LAN parties" now) at age 15. Had my own modem line that same year, and set up my first BBS at my high school in October 1985. Ran off to Kansas in 1987 to go to college (and turned into a spandex-clad Jayhawk) and started The Rock Chalk BBS there in 1988. Set up around 9-10 more BBSes to cultivate and develop the online community, collaborating with all the Sysops that would work with me. We made Lawrence, Kansas a rocking place to be online.

Then, alas, I graduated from college, and went from being an intensely geeky student from California to a unemployed Kansas graduate. This was 1991, so the economy in California was in the dumper, and I couldn't go back. So I had to go work for The Man in Kansas City, and get whatever job I could just so I could eat. And so most of my programming with reckless abandon and doing tons of cool things for the BBS's went by the wayside... to doing TPS reports for The Man.

I had used the Internet while in college and done all the telnet/FTP/Gopher stuff at the time, but little did we BBS people know that we were in the latter Mesozoic era, and the asteroid was coming. Suddenly the web browser came out, and legions of people went online in unimaginable numbers, spurred by AOL spam floppies. I was busy trying to get a job as a LAN tech and a SysAdmin and had no time to keep up any more-- and before long the BBS era was drawn to a sharp close when people quit calling (and when a Kansas lightning thunderstorm nuked my BBS via internal modem). That's when I packed up and went back to California.

Now, years later, oodles of people are online, and some of that's good, and some of that's bad. Concepts like identity theft and cyberbullying (and pure evil like somethingawful.com, portalofevil.com or even sibe) were unheard of and didn't exist back in the day. It was a much more innocent time, when the premise was that we were all in this together as the early pioneers; even using a computer to talk to each other was some serious common ground. So many people are so snarky and prone to nastiness these days-- I fought plenty of BBS Flame Wars back in my day, but I get tired of them now because I know they don't amount to anything before long at all.

But now people understand what the online world is, and cyberspace is big business. We used to talk about whether you would ever be able to actually BUY something online using a computer, and now everybody does it without a single thought. You can look up everything from satellite maps to prices at a grocery store in Poughkeepsie, NY or even some wacky video that we put together for FC. I have met every fandom I have ever been in, from pirate to Wicca to rennie to sci-fi and furry, online and met some amazing people. I have met more friends than I can even keep track of with this, and at the time it was the first time that people were able to do this at all. Lots of us have found people online that were into the exact same things as we were, with the usual amazed cry of "I thought I was the only one!". It's kind of like "Message in a Bottle" by The Police, only the bottles are packets.



The tones and hiss of the modem mating dance have gone the way of the Victrola now, but the world of cyberspace only gets bigger with each passing year. I only hope I can keep up with all the changes, as they've already been mind-blowing and have introduced me to more people than my parents' generation could even comprehend.

Here's to the next 25 years!
Tags: bbs modems old-skool
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