Exploring Tech In the 90s with BBSes
March 04, 2021
Some time in the early 1990s, my parents got “their” first computer, a 386 SX by a company called “USA Flex.” This device had 640KB of memory, and a “turbo” button to go from 8 MHz to 16 MHz–a relief if that kind of blazing top speed was too intimidating–and came with Windows 3.
When this device arrived, it would be many hours until my dad got home from work, so I started plugging things that fit in until the power came on. After that, I inserted disks one-by-one into the 3.5” drive until I was somehow able to use Windows and play solitaire. As it turned out, I became the main user of this computer, eventually figuring out how to open up QBASIC for programming tasks, installing a sound card and a 14.4Kbps modem, as well as a bunch of software that was purchased and/or passed around among friends.
BBSes, a Window to the World
It was quite an educational experience, and quite frustrating at the same time. While the Internet existed in some early form–along with AOL, Prodigy, and the like–I never had access to these paid services, and certainly not the abundant tutorials that we take for granted today. Nonetheless, after installing my modem, I was determined to get access to the local BBSes, or bulletin board systems, that I’d somehow caught wind of.
A 314 area code list of BBSes in 1990 (Screenshot by Josh Renaud of breakintochat.com)
Piecing things together from directions in the modem packaging, I used a terminal program to activate this audibly screeching device, and hooked it up to our landline telephone outlet to call other computers. You could also open up your system to the world by having it listen for “visitors” and run your own BBS. In a way, it was a refreshingly simply connection method when compared to today’s Internet, where you generally have no idea where a website you visit is hosted and what data it’s manipulating in countless directions.
Getting started, however, the problem was that:
1. How do you know where to call, and
2. If you are hosting a BBS, how do people know to call you?
It was a real dilemma in an era with no Google, and where you don’t know anyone else that’s attempted this kind of connection. While my memory is a little hazy at this point, I actually called the operator on our telephone and asked if there was a BBS I could log on to with my computer. After a bit of confusion, she finally gave me the number, and on that board was a list of other boards that I could call, which had lists to other BBSes, forming the roots of a sort of BBS web if you can call it that.
Local Club at Sub-Mbps speeds
While limited by today’s standards, the fact that I could reach out to another system through the phone lines was truly amazing. At the same time, it really makes you appreciate the kind of Internet speeds available today. While phone modems that could theoretically transfer at up to 56Kbps eventually were built, my first model was 14.4Kbps.
For comparison, if you have a “slow” data transfer rate of, for example, 10Mbps (AKA 10,000Kbps, or 10,000,000bps), that’s 694 times the speed of a 14.4K modem. If you’re lucky enough to have ‘Gig service, or 1Gbps, that’s on million Kbps, or 69,444 times what this modem could deliver.
All that being said, downloading a small 100KB image, which works out to be 800Kb, would theoretically take just under 56 seconds. Even at “fast” 56K speeds, such an image would take over 14 seconds. BBSes were therefore largely text-based affairs. You could, however, download files, message others, and even play (mostly) text-based door games that could still be quite interesting.
One consequence of how BBSes were set up is that they were largely local affairs. You were literally calling a phone number, and if it was long distance, the charges would show up on a phone bill. This meant that you wouldn’t want to spend hours calling one in another state. While restrictive, it’s interesting to think back to a time where geography still mattered, even if the communication method was electronic.
Lessons for Today?
While it seems the heyday of BBSes is long gone, perhaps there are some things we can take from those experiences today.
Ease of Use: In this case the barrier to entry was quite high, especially before you knew how to do things. There are certainly parallels to apps and the like today that one might have trouble figuring out.
- Local Community: While the web is worldwide, there’s still some value in proximity. Services like Nextdoor seem to cater to this. However...
- Privacy: On the flip side, I don’t use Nextdoor, as it seems ripe for abuse from both “big brother” and nosy neighbors… possibly even myself. There was some elegance knowing that “big tech” (likely) wasn’t watching you when you logged onto a BBS. You could also largely start over with a new handle, since it was rare that someone would know your real name.
- Terminal Programs – still useful: While used differently, there are some distinct similarities between using SSH with a Raspberry Pi and the like and connecting to a remote BBS. While graphical user interfaces are nice and great, there are times when a simple text interface provides significant benefits.
Interestingly–as of 2016 at least–as seen in the video below, this kind of “Facebook of 1988” can sill be setup and accessed if you so desire:
Trade Wars 2002, a very popular BBS door game (Screenshot by Josh Renaud of breakintochat.com)
While I’ve briefly covered my experiences here, I’m really only scratching the surface. For that matter, even in the early to mid-90s, I was a bit late to the BBS game, as dialup ISPs, or Internet Service Providers, were becoming more and more common.
If you want to know more about this world, here’s a few resources:
- Josh Renaud’s Break Into Chat blog about BBS history and retro-tech
- PCMag’s The Forgotten World of BBS Door Games
- Brian Moses’ intro to Trade Wars 2002, a particularly popular door game, complete with directions on how to log onto on his server (that’s actively being played as of this writing) over the Internet. Perhaps you’d like to join in on the fun!
That being said, larger dial-up services weren’t all bad. AOL did send me quite a bit of free storage media, which was quite nice of them!
Jeremy Cook is a freelance tech journalist and engineering consultant with over 10 years of factory automation experience. An avid maker and experimenter, you can follow him on Twitter [https://twitter.com/JeremySCook], or see his electromechanical exploits on the Jeremy S. Cook YouTube Channel! [https://www.youtube.com/c/jeremyscook]