A 1986 bulletin board system has brought the old Web back to life in 2017

Computer

Limited to an anachronistic 1200 bits per second, it took several moments for the green-phosphor ASCII art to scroll from the bottom to the top of the screen. A login prompt and a blinking cursor invited me to continue deeper:

Enter GUEST for a quick look around.)
Enter your ID#, HANDLE, NEW or ‘?’:_

What would David Lightman think? I found myself at the guarded gates of an online community that had been disconnected for decades. This was mid-2016, but for all intents and purposes, it might as well have been 1986.

Today, many can be forgiven for thinking that the digital communications revolution kicked off during the mid-1990s, when there was simply an explosion of media and consumer interest in the World Wide Web. Just a decade earlier, however, the future was now for the hundreds of thousands of users already using home computers to communicate with others over the telephone network. The online culture of the 1980s was defined by the pervasiveness of bulletin board systems (BBS), expensive telephone bills, and the dulcet tones of a 1200 baud connection (or 2400, if you were very lucky). While many Ars readers certainly recall bulletin board systems with pixelated reverence, just as many are likely left scratching their heads in confusion (“what exactly is a BBS, anyway?”).

It’s a good thing, then, that a dedicated number of vintage computing hobbyists are resurrecting these digital communities that were once thought lost to time. With some bulletin board systems being rebooted from long-forgotten floppy disks and with some still running on original 8-bit hardware, the current efforts of these seasoned sysops (that is, system administrators) provide a very literal glimpse into the state of online affairs from more than three decades ago. And while services such as the Internet Archive are an excellent resource for studying the growth of the World Wide Web as it’s frozen in time, these hobbyists are opening portals today for modern users to go places that have been long forgotten.

A hybrid hardware affair

Just as the BBS culture invokes fond memories for many of its previous subscribers, its rapid fade into obscurity ensured that an entire generation of Internet users would have no idea that it ever existed. For many (including myself, it turns out), it would be easy to mistake a bulletin board system for some kind of first-generation website without understanding the fundamental differences between the two.

It’s easy to see why this happened. Many authors have already recounted the meteoric rise of the World Wide Web and the demise of protocols that came before it. Needless to say, the Web offered a significant evolution over what came before it.

It was also around this time that hardware obsolescence was becoming a problem. Owners of older 8-bit machines had little reason to maintain their hardware as their userbase migrated to the open pastures of the Web, and the number of bulletin board systems plummeted accordingly. At the dawn of the new millennium, very few systems remained accessible.

Despite the threat of extinction, however, it turns out that some sysops never quite gave up on the BBS. In February of 2016, a sysop with the handle “Skip” brought a BBS called Dura-Europos back online after a hiatus of more than 23 years. The BBS had originally run from October 1986 through to April 1993. As you might imagine, getting it up and running again wasn’t easy.

“I had tried putting it back online several years earlier after I purchased an Apple IIe Platinum from eBay, but it failed,” explains Skip. Naturally, our interview took place within the Dura-Europos bulletin board system.

“The main reason I failed to get it online several years ago is that I was not aware of the Raspberry Pi and TCPser, those were the two missing ingredients.”

Before Telnet and the Internet took over, the only way to connect to a bulletin board was by dialing the correct phone number. The telephone network carried the connection just like a phone call, and the modems on each end of the line would modulate and demodulate the signal for their respective computers. (No Internet required!)

While this approach is still possible in 2017, it comes with some caveats. VoIP services are almost entirely out of the question, as the digital compression used doesn’t allow computer signals (or Fax) to reliably travel from point to point. It’s worth noting that very slow speeds, around 300bps or less, are more likely to work over VoIP. There are also very few systems out there that are still connected directly to POTS (plain old telephone system), so even if you did have access to a real copper phone line and were willing to pay the call costs, there’s not much hope of finding a BBS out in the wild.

As Skip soon found out, TCPser solves all of these problems by emulating a standard Hayes modem. On one side, it sends and receives data at the correct specifications over a standard serial connection to your preferred vintage computer, just as a real modem would have done. On the other side, it sends and transmits the same data out to the Internet (hence “TCPser”). A similar setup on the other side of the connection completes the route—however, the client has the luxury of using a standard Telnet connection on modern hardware instead of TCPser if they so choose.

For the interested client in 2017, it’s simply a matter of “dialing” the BBS using a domain name and port number instead of a phone number in their preferred terminal software. Most software will accept any string of characters, not just numbers. For those that don’t, TCPser can also map any string of numbers to a particular domain name (much like a bookmark in a Web browser) to get around this limitation.

So today, instead of using a phone number to connect to Dura-Europos as was the case originally, a user types: dura-bbs.net:6359.

Apple II Plus

We came home with an Apple II Plus recently and obviously missed its true calling—BBS resurrection.

While TCPser can be run on almost any modern computer, the Raspberry Pi is a low-cost alternative that sits neatly between a vintage computer and the Internet, either over Wi-Fi or ethernet. That was just part of the problem solved for Skip.

“I had a complete set of 3.5-inch backup disks I made before taking it down. Actually two sets; I was a believer in backing things up… I used a 3.5-inch drive to restore the disks to the CFFA3000,” he says.

The CFFA3000 is a modern peripheral for Apple ][ computers that adds mass storage using flash media and can be used to replace floppy disks and hard disks. For Skip, it’s a viable alternative to the original 32mb hard drive he had with his original setup and those 3.5-inch diskettes. Not only is modern flash storage infinitely cheaper and more accessible than the correct vintage hard drives, the I/O is also a lot faster despite the board still being limited to 4800bps.

Still, much of the hardware is legitimately vintage despite these modern luxuries. “The Apple //e is the only hardware the GBBS Pro software runs on, and it’s an excuse to use my Apple //e Platinum,” Skip says. “It has two Super Serial Cards, an AE Transwarp accelerator, AE TimeMaster, and a CFFA 3000 compact flash drive.”

The Transwarp card boosts the Apple //e’s 65C02 processor from 1mhz to 3.6mhz, adding 256kb of RAM as well. This further increases the bulletin board’s I/O speeds, especially when users are loading games.

The TimeMaster card adds a battery-backed real-time clock to Apple ][ systems and helps with the ordering and record-keeping of posts on the bulletin board by adding time stamps. These cards were a relatively common sight in Apple ][ systems, leading to an in-built RTC on the Apple IIgs.

With the correct software loaded into the flash storage and TCPser running on the Pi, Dura-Europos started receiving calls. Skip was ready to party like it was 1993 all over again.

Time capsules and TREK

When connecting to the bulletin board for the first time last year, old conversation threads dating back decades were available verbatim. Much like rediscovering old handwritten letters, the appeal of these posts now is largely in the eye of the beholder.

It’s not that the conversations are particularly personal—most of the time. Many concern day-to-day life: school, employment, relationships. It’s like a buried digital time capsule; these posts are a direct reflection of what was important to those users. So in the same way an anthropologist may dissect the motivations and emotions of ancient peoples, I found myself inferring all manner of things from messages that were once trapped on floppy disk.

Unfortunately, it seems like most of the original users haven’t yet found their way back to Dura-Europos. Rediscovery of these messages becomes the responsibility of curious strangers, and no one is around to reply.

“There have been two callers from the ‘old days,'” Skip says. “They mostly stopped in to look and say ‘hi,’ but apparently have moved on in life and not been back.”

As part of the revival process, Skip has been going to great lengths to refine a long-forgotten subsection of the board, a complex set of routines known simply as ‘STARTREK.’  Here’s how Skip put it in a bulletin from October 2016:

Numb |* 51
From |* Trajan (1)
To |* ALL
Date |* Oct 2 2016 at 12:44pm
Topic |* STARTREK BBS GAME

Regarding the STARTREK game I re-discovered on this board (#13 on the GAME menu). I have been going over it and think it is operational more-or-less. I did encounter an over-flow error but do not know what caused it now. If the game crashes, it the BBS will recover and go back on-line in a minute or so.

There are a lot of random number generators and I need to look at each one to find which one(s) could possibly result in a number larger than 32,000 (actually 32XXX, I am not sure of the exact maximum allowed in 8-bit).

Alongside STARTREK exist Chess, Blackjack and a variety of other online games, the latter two including enhanced graphics when using the ProTERM software on an Apple ][ computer. Today, they are an anachronistic reminder of how far we have come in regard to computer gaming.

Beyond the appeal of games with actual graphics (and not just ASCII graphics), other games were created almost spontaneously by the users themselves. Extensive threads are available to read on OLD DURA, an archive of the bulletin board’s earlier years. Within these are perfectly preserved text-based role-plays; users would go from paragraph-to-paragraph armed with nothing but their keyboards and their imaginations.

While messages in the main boards were often snippets of mundane life, the role-play areas allowed users to indulge in pure fantasy with others, with an unprecedented level of interactivity for the time. Stories and adventures were shaped by the users, with the sysop only needing to lay the initial framework, as seen here in one of the earliest archived posts:

Numb |* 1
To |* ALL
From | Julia Felix
Date |* 10/27/86 00:00:00 ET
Topic |* Welcome

A fat little man beams at you from behind a dirty leather apron. “Welcome oh honorable one! There is always room for one more merry maker in the Bar of Julia”. With that, he scuttles off into the smoke…

You proceed cautiously into the hazy interior, feeling many eyes upon you. The smoke is very thick. Acrid smells greet your nose. The wine appears to flow freely…

The next messages within this subforum date from 1992, and I won’t spoil the contents here. Needless to say, it’s worth the read, even if the thread picks up in the middle of the “story.” Due to storage limitations, older messages were overwritten by the bulletin board software after all.

Small details like this allow the bulletin board experience to continue to transcend beyond a barebones messaging service into a full-fledged online portal. With thousands vying for the attention of users during the ’80s and ’90s, games and other distractions were a reason to come back, over and over again, especially when the sysop took the time to modify the board beyond its original limitations.

Avoiding idiots

For Skip, reviving his old community started off as a programming exercise and has slowly grown into a mini-revival of “the good times.” However, he’s skeptical as to whether his efforts have “resurrected” the community quite yet.

“I recently retired from a programming job, and I like to program. I was not sure what to expect… the response has been sporadic,” he says. “There has been a spike in interest after I publicize it in a forum or whatever, but most callers are one-time callers, apparently only curious. I do have a small ad placed in an upcoming issue of Juiced.GS that I hope might attract a user or two.”

But for the users of Dura Europos now, there is a sense that this community has been revitalized. Despite all the modern intricacies and possibilities of the modern Web, there’s something about the experience of connecting with a BBS for users that continues to be unmatched in the present online space.

“I always enjoyed BBSing back in the 80s and early 90s, and I find a BBS to be a lot more ‘personable’ than a website,” explains a user called Kailef. “A website has a very public feel to it, whereas a BBS feels very much like being invited into someone’s living room.”

Another user called Tillek shared similar sentiments. (Like Kalief, my interview with Tillek took place on the Dura-Europos bulletin board as well.) In fact, the intimacy of this BBS causes Tillek to openly lament the current state of Web affairs.

“For me, it’s about reliving my youth and about avoiding idiots,” Tillek says. “Most people smart enough to post on BBS’s aren’t that stupid… and in my advancing age, I can only handle stupid in small doses… It was kind of the same back then. Computers weren’t overly user friendly in my BBS days. People who tended to use them had to have a certain level of mastery. You could be reasonably assured that you all had something in common… it reminds me of, and lets me live a bit in better times.”

Even in 2017, Dura-Europos isn’t one of a kind. This represents merely one of several bulletin boards that have made the transition from POTS to the Internet. DJ’s Place (bbs.impakt.net:6502) takes the experience a step further by using telephone switching equipment that directs the “call” over a real telephone circuit to a real Hayes modem. Other communities, such as particlesbbs.dyndns.org:6400, are a revival of the Commodore bulletin board userbase, and it runs on a Commodore 128DCR accordingly.

And speaking of Commodore, Quantum Link Reloaded is a special community revival, focusing on the interface of the Quantum Link system that later became the foundations of AOL. Featuring colorful graphics and a detailed user interface, this unique type of entity bridged the gap between text-based bulletin boards and the World Wide Web.

BBS Chess

Nothing like some user-versus-user chess through a slow and methodical medium.

And the point?

If you ever have the fantastic pleasure of visiting the city of Rome, make sure that you visit the Roman Forum, especially in the early hours of a weekday morning. By carefully planning your visit to occur outside of peak tourist hours, you may find yourself alone as you pose at the steps to the Temple of Antoninus & Faustina. It’s an imposing reminder of a time before modern conveniences, but an era that wasn’t without remarkable invention. Looking up and down the cracked footpaths of the Forum, it’s not hard to picture the bustling society that once used this archaeological marvel as a marketplace and meeting area.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Forum was literally the foundation of civilizations that later claimed the landscape, and it’s only in modern times that we have rediscovered this incredible picture of the past. While the people will never return to the streets of the Roman Forum, the structures and stories remain to the present day.

In just a quarter of a century, access to the World Wide Web has become an inescapable requirement of day-to-day life. And just like the Roman Forum for a long period of time, we’ve similarly decided to bury our digital histories after the new era (the Web) gained a foothold. The stories and conversations that took place within these spaces were thought to be largely lost to the march of time, just like those that would have taken place in the Roman Forum. But slowly an older generation of computing enthusiasts is uncovering these digital ruins in order to restore them as the unique landmarks they are.

It would be foolish to suggest that bulletin boards are on their way to a full-blown comeback. Hampered by antiquated protocols and overshadowed by modern technology, bulletin boards will remain a nostalgic distraction for old-hats and a curious study for the social media generation. Many other examples of online communications from this period also remain generally accessible in 2017, such as Google’s extensive Usenet archive.

However, the experience of rediscovering a long-forgotten bulletin board community cannot be overstated. There is no parallel medium where the experiences, recounts, and layouts of these precursors to the World Wide Web are so perfectly preserved. Nowhere else is the act of “going on-line” so accurately represented. In the same way that you are flanked by impossibly ancient architecture while exploring the Roman Forum, connecting to a bulletin board system is to experience the same medium as the users who once populated bulletin boards.

And beyond the novelty of this nostalgic experience, I found that taking my first steps onto a bulletin board provided an excellent reminder of just how far things have come. It’s easy to take today’s broadband and terascale computation for granted, so to see what was accomplished with so little was simply humbling.

Whether you are returning to bulletin boards or are discovering them for the first time, soaking up the digital aesthetics of the 1980s is something not to be missed. And thanks to the efforts of Skip and other veteran sysops, this trip back in time is now just a few keystrokes away.

Chris Wilkinson is an Australian-based technology writer with an unwavering nostalgia for vintage computing hardware and obsolete electronics.

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SOURCE: Arstechnica