The most amazing thing about it all was that it was the public internet before there was a public internet. E-mails sent over FidoNET had an amazing weight to them that's hard to describe. It took a ton of effort just to get your BBS to participate in the network and once you did, data moved so slowly that you became very observant of each step of the process of communicating. First, you wrote the email in your mail editor (I loved GoldED). Then, another program bundled it up with other emails into some kind of binary packaging and passed it along to the mailer. The mailer took this bundle of mail and dialed out on the modem to the local FidoNET hub. If you lived in a rural location, this meant that you had to make a long-distance call to deliver the mail. My local hub was in Seguin, TX (~30 miles away) and it felt like a very big deal when my computer dialed him up to do a delivery. From there, the hub delivered it to a "star", which was a regional hub that dealt in larger volumes of mail. This was usually run by someone with money because their modems were making long-distance calls (including overseas) on a regular basis. From the star, your mail was shipped across long distances and then the process repeated in reverse until the recipient's system picked up the mail from their local hub. Then, when they replied, the whole thing happened again in reverse. It regularly took days to get a reply from across the world but it was so fun! Every single mail that you received in your inbox felt as important as someone writing a letter by hand and sending it via the postal service. I cherished getting emails, even if they were stupid.
I still dream about reviving a modern FidoNET (yes, I know it still exists) for the HN crowd. I write a lot of Go and I even read some of the FidoNET technical standards with the thought of a Go implementation of the protocols but never got anywhere in it. It's an enormous amount of work and I haven't had a real phone line in over a decade. Doing Fido over TCP/IP just doesn't feel the same. It's way too easy.
Do you remember ZMH? Zone Mail Hour? If you had a public BBS, you had to disallow logins during ZMH, so that your phone line was reserved for netmail and echomail delivery.
I was just a lowly point, so I didn't have to bother with that crap. 2:201/274.9 representin', yo.
The funniest part about the star-shaped network was that it was more of a feudal society than a democracy. And of course it devolved into political fights among the lowly nodes and points who thought the stupid RCs and NCs had way too much power over the network and wanted it to become more democratic, but since the coordinators (Did you call them stars in zone 1?) footed the bill for the long-distance message deliveries, it was usually their way or the highway.
Funnily enough, Sweden abolished the concept of long-distance calls sometime in the 90s, which drastically undercut the power of the controllers. :-)
The reason for ZMH was that a node making a connection to another node required the use of a physical phone line where one node would dial the other, which would stop anyone else from connecting to those two nodes. So if you had a lowly user logged on to your BBS, noone else could log on to it, and you couldn't send or receive Fidonet mail.
Contrast that with TCP/IP where it's possible to have millions of active connections to other nodes on a single node without breaking a sweat, and it's just a ridiculous comparison.
Another hilarious quirk of the times was that almost noone was running a multitasking OS (Amiga users: shut up!), which meant that once someone had called your Frontdoor system and delivered mail, it would exit, and start your mailer (Fmail!), which would uncompress the received file, put all the messages in your local message db (We're talking flatfiles of course, SQL was nowhere in sight), and prepare packages for all your downstream nodes, and after that it would start up Frontdoor again, at which point you could finally receive calls again.
So not only were the systems unable to handle more than one connection at a time, there was also no background processing, so while your computer was busy unpacking an enormous serveral-hundred-kilobytes zip file of mail, it couldn't accept any calls.
Oh, oh! And there was no Unicode, not UTF8, so there was a years-long technical debate/flamewar/ridiculous shoutfest about which character set to standardize on, where the main contenders were CP437 vs. ISO-8859-1.
Looking back, it's amazing it worked at all, but it did, and that was fucking magic.
Fido's hub-and-star system existed to more efficiently move mail. Many of the Net- and Zone-level coordinators didn't run huge BBSes with lots of phone lines that could move the large (for this era of slow modems) amount of mail that could be generated. Volunteers with more money and expertise formed a mail routing system outside of the Fido leadership hierarchy to get the job done. Some better-funded local person in your Net would step up and become a "hub". All of the local BBSes would send their mail to the hub, which would make a long-distance call a few times a day to send mail upstream to a "star", which was basically the same thing, just moving much more mail at a higher level in the hierarchy. Stars would call other stars and move the mail over long distances, including across continents. The stars were the real power-holders in Fido.
I was just a little bit too young to get access to BBS in my youth.
I was 2:201/274.9. My upstream node that I connected to was 2:201/274. He connected to his upstream hub, 2:201/200, who in turn connected to his upstream net coordinator, 2:201/0, whose upstream was the regional coordinator, 2:20/0, and finally up to the zone coordinator, who I think was 2:0/0 or something.
A zone was a continent, 2 was Europe. Regions were countries in Europe, 20 was Sweden. Each region could have any number of networks, Sweden had like 5, and network 1 was the Stockholm area. Each network had hubs and nodes, and the guy who ran the node I talked to was simply the 74th node of the 2nd hub. Finally, since I didn't have a public BBS, I was a private point, the 9th on my node.
So putting it all together, a Fidonet address is zone:regionnetwork/hubnode.point.
Why weren't there separator characters between the region and the networks, or the hub and the nodes? Who knows, it worked. :-)
Because the original scheme didn't account for these intermediate levels. 2:201/274 was supposed to talk to 2:201/0, which was supposed to talk to 2:0/0.
Doesn't scale, so they introduced the 10^n scheme for subdivision (whose precise limits differed between zones)
Bowmanville would call Oshawa which was a local call.
Oshawa would call Pickering which was a local call.
Pickering would call Scarborough again a local call.
Scarborough would call Toronto and Toronto would call Mississauga.
All the message relays would just use local calls, but if you left any of the stop out you would need a long distance call. So all our local message did not cost us.
I was just a kid (teenager) so I didn't have the funds to run a BBS myself. But I remember the 60 minute limits, the long lists of local BBSes, the ANSI graphics, Maximus, RemoteAccess and others (I had played with a few in the hopes of starting a BBS, but that era was starting to end when I graduated in the early 2000s), Door games, RIP graphics (the very early days of vector art on VGA screens).
There were door games like Baron Realms Elite where BBS sysops would get together and play BBS against BBS (of course many people had player accounts of multiple BBSes but it was all part of the fun and the years of protection added a decent balance to the game).
Games from that era were so much better than this Free-To-Play with micro-transactions crap. I understand it earns mobile game companies a ton of money (from a tiny % of the population that spends $200 to $5000 on a single game), but the shareware model of first 10 levels free, next 30 levels for $x made for much better games. Plus it gave people something to exchange from board to board; the whole upload/download ratios (which kids from the torrent era should really learn about--because it existed then and for legal shareware on the majority of BBSs).
I remember once getting an amazing side scrolling shooter from Japan. It may have not been shareware, but it was impossible to tell. It had no readme and I couldn't read anything on the screen. :-P It was super fun though, and I remember thinking of all the hops it must have taken (those people who make long distance BBS calls, or maybe just someone who brought disks over on a holiday) to get to a BBS in my small town.
I also remember Doom coming out, and all the Sysops talking about how amazing a game it was. I think it was 3 disks though; took either three days (60 minutes time limits) or hopping to three different BBSes to get all the disks. Then it said I needed a 386 or higher (I had a 286). I took it to a friends house who had a 486. His mom was a super Christian. She watched us play a few levels and that didn't really end well.
After googling, I just realized that Maximus 3.0 eventually included RIPscrip support built-in, but I had lost interest in my BBS and moved on to hacking on Unix systems by then.
But I remember RIPscrip being a nice format. Thanks for providing me with many an afternoon spent tinkering with it.
I liked how they were turn based (each user got X turns per day) and one player played at a time, but you were playing in a multi-player world against other people who would take their turns for the day.
I always thought it'd be interesting to do something similar in modern day, where you could take turns offline in a game (eg. in a subway or something, without internet access) and when you had online access, those turns were submitted against other people in the game. I wonder if there is anything like that?
RIP graphics were progress and a great innovation.
Of course, these days you'd probably be able to just buy an extra day for 500 gold coins...
It's amazing to me is how many people volunteered their time, hardware, and money to keep these systems running for free.
I dreamed of running a big Fido hub. Sadly, Fido vanished before I reached the income level where I could have a bank of phone lines making long-distance calls all day and not worry about it. Just running a single phone line was an expensive challenge for me as a young kid. It took a lot of bussing tables at a hamburger joint.
I made friends with a fellow in Texas that claimed he had won a counter suit against AT&T for false phreaking charges and settled out of court for some number of years of free long distance. Because of this he would call my board and push me the mail from our other nodes every day and save me the money.
Now that I'm older the story sounds implausible and I think the dude might have just been lonely.
It was a lot of fun getting messages from boards in South Africa and other places every day. A very prominent HNer ran a BBS that was also a member of the network though I'm sure they wouldn't appreciate being outed! Such fun times.
I used a mailer front end called Intermail, and I remember at age 15 it was unimaginably complicated to set up.
I remember when, as a kid, if you answered the phone and it was a long distance call for mom or dad, we would run to get them yelling "Long distance! Long distance!"
Every second was precious.
I believe there's an exception for controlling remote devices when you need to make sure some rando doesn't brick your pricy gear.
USR offered substantial discounts to BBS operators to keep us from buying cheap gear. I pre-ordered some pre-v.34 (upgradeable) Courier V.Everything for my board at BBSCon for $249/ea. I think that's about what a Sportster 14.4K was selling for at the time.
1) Administrators running their own instance that they can customize and have local conversations on, and
2) FidoNET, where instances relay messages to each other across a network.
I had worked on a similar network at the time which used Frontdoor in front of the BBS to call other boards and relay the messages (and receive calls from boards), but was never a part of the FidoNET network myself.
Haha - also "I was too scared of my parents" .. me too. There was not as much darkness as the skull images suggest, but trying to look 3l33t was /<-rad and all. RemoteAccess ("RA") was a nice software, I used that myself for a short time.
I remember that I had a strict limit of $13 a month that I was allowed to spend on long distance phone calls. I paid the bill myself, but my mother could not understand wasting more than $13 (I think it was originally $10, and I negotiated up to $13) a month on calling BBSs. I kept a hand-written log of how many minutes I spent in each area code and the price to call that area code so that I would not go over.
The internet was invented several times. Many people assume that it wouldn't have happened without ARPAnet, but that doesn't line up with history. I remember the olden days :-) and anyone with two or more computers tried to hook them together by inventing a network.
It's like when the steam engine was invented (to pump water out of mines), one of the first things people tried was putting wheels on it. It's just obvious.
How goes it?
I had a tape drive as well,and I did back things up at the time, but even those backups are gone.
Surely you mean floppy drive?
Since the audience here is very diverse I'll selfishly throw out a couple nostalgia requests:
A friend's board ran a door game called "Cyberspace" that was a TinyMUD-esque "single user dungeon" game. At one point we had 10 - 12 people actively building rooms, adding mobile NPCs, etc. It was loads of fun even though only one person at a time was interacting with the software. I've looked periodically over the last 20 years to see if I can find the people who wrote it on the 'net, but I've had very little luck. (It was Turbo Pascal-based, and originally written for WWIV, but we "adapted" it to work on Searchlight and later Renegade.)
I'd love see if anybody from the old 203 board "Bit Truth" or the classic 602 "Unphamiliar Territory" is on here. Any takers?
For those interested, their codebase is available on GitHub .
BBS with Internet today serves as a high-performance forum, loading boards/articles takes a single RTT. Storage is still file-based and relies on filesystem and kernel caching.
Eventually around 1990 it was extended to support federated message exchange, but by then UNIX systems were entering consciousness so we switched to multi-line, uucp capable Waffle software on DOS, then Xenix, BSD/OS and finally Linux around 1993 as it became https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internex_Online
I remember "io.org" as the shortest domain name I knew in 1993 and adopted it as my default password for anonymous ftp logins.
In fact to this day if I login as anonymous on an ftp server, muscle memory dictates I type in "email@example.com" as my password.
I read somewhere that therefore a reasonable shorthand was to drop the hostname portion of your address since the FTP server knew your source hostname anyway. So this is similarly etched into _my_ muscle memory, but looking back I have no idea where I read this or if it was actually common at all or if I was the only one.
It's the shortest useful domain name I know.
Anyway, that constraint was also somehow reflected on the choice of tools, maybe in this case especially in the software used by the BBS itself. The US had plenty of different BBS software being used. I know Wildcat was popular in Europe. In my native Brazil it was dominated by PCBoard (major) and Remote Access (minor), and the underground scene was heavily invested in the "cool" Oblivion. I actually thought PCBoard was a major player until I realized very few boards in the USA used it.
The same goes for all the other software. In some areas LORD was _the_ BBS game, in others it was unknown. In my region BlueWave was the standard offline mail reader, in others only QWK or even weirder formats were the standard.
This is only noteworthy because, in 2017, this would be entirely normal behavior for a 14 year-old. But the amount of effort and expense it took to get the equipment, extra line, BBS and then _teaching my girlfriend how to use a modem_ put me squarely in the superdork category.
My parents were very anti-computer at the time because I spent so much time on it and they would never let me spend any of the money I earned at my busboy job on computer parts so I had to be sneaky about it. I eventually pilfered the $150 to get a Zoom 14.4Kbps modem and me and my buddy took his car to CompUSA and bought modems on the sly. I had to pull mine out of the packaging and ditch the box and sneak it home in my backpack so my folks wouldn't see, then be sure to mute the modem speaker so they wouldn't notice the changed negotiation tones.
It seems so ridiculous now: computers became my meal ticket in a very big way and I'm eternally grateful that I had the balls to secretly buy that modem.
Mine was Apocalypse / ApX (a hack of Havok, which was a hack of something else, which was a hack of Emulex/2, which I think was a hack of Forum?), around '92.
I, too, remember recruiting ACiD guys to help out with the menu art.
You'd actually have to add delays by moving the cursor to allow enough time to read the captions/speech bubbles. It was pretty funny because it would be much slower on a 300 baud modem vs. a 2400 baud, so you had to be careful how you tuned your delays.
All written in turbo pascal, right ?
Pretty much everything was either a Forum (Pascal) or WWIV (C) hack.
I also remember some very, very active and high quality boards that ran citadel ... citadel was sort of the HN of the BBS world ... no ANSI, no fluff, just quick command keys and all high quality discussion.
This meant it could offer an active chat room, and it had a MUD game that everyone loved, called TeleArena.
For me, TeleArena was fun because I'd write scripts that would automate playing the game for me when I wasn't there.
I had this weird software I licensed which let people play Doom against each other, over the phone line, simulating a local IPX network ... MPGS (Multiplayer game server) by a company called APCi.
My favorite door was Legend of the Red Dragon (LoRD) and I remember playing it a lot back then. My users (all half-dozen of them) did, too. It was a small town, and I was surprised to get that many people.
So much nostalgia, and I can definitely link it to my career today.
I miss live-chatting with the sysop if he was around
I miss gaining access levels and discover new files/areas
I miss re-loging at 12:01am to have double turns for my attack in BRE
I miss the discovery involved, how you would need to come up with interesting/new content to maintain you UL/DL ratio
I miss the epic mail convos we had in my BBS community
I miss GT's
It was pretty good, but the joke was that it contained everything and a toaster.
It's interesting to see Dementia was based off of WWIV. The WWIV BBS software was well written and easy to update/customize/modify. TML, Innerdot, and others were amongst those that ran it in the 80s to early 90s.
Interestingly enough, I actually feel like the BBS days did more to foster social interaction than "social networks" now. They were (unless warez sites) hyper local. In the east bay, we had regular pick up tackle football games (going from several a year in the early days on 1/x year in the 2000s) that ran for around (maybe more than) 20 years. Many of those involved are still friends.
I eventually stumbled on wetware.com, which was a shared unix box hosted (I think) near SF State somewhere. The joys of UUCP mail and Usenet! I made some really good friends both on and off-line there, but sadly all of them eventually drifted away from the Bay Area, as most transplants do.
This thread is bringing up a lot of nostalgia...
Maybe Legend of the Red Dragon would be easier...
[Edit: I'm aware that there are TW2002 games out there right now, but those tend to be web-based, and I wanna do a legit BBS-style game. Telnet, probably.]
For a quick “where are they now”:
- Barren Realms Elite --> Mehul (my brother) moved from BBS games to web games, with Earth 2025 and then Utopia, and then a web portal Swirve.com, and then he got out of the games business and ran a coffee shop, Dominican Joe in downtown Austin (but it was just sold)
- Legend of the Red Dragon --> Seth Robinson (who I finally met this year) moved on to PC games, then mobile games, and now runs a successful MMO called Growtopia (but it was just sold) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robinson_Technologies
- Solar Realms Elite --> I got out of the BBS door world and went to grad school, interested in teaching. I now write interactive tutorials at redblobgames.com, starting with game development but I want to expand into math and computer science. SRE's wikipedia page got wiped by the deletionists http://www.vintagecomputing.com/index.php/archives/922 but was preserved by http://breakintochat.com/
I mean, ultimately that's what Eve Online is, a massive TW2002 "clone". Only everything made better.
I think the problem with an economic system is you need enough people to do it properly, or you have to figure out some kind of 'fake' where it can be dynamic enough for the concept of cross-space trading work, but also not be entirely unrealistic.
I did learn a lot about event-driven programming, state machines, and the telnet protocol however.
I've dreamt for years about licensing TW to make a mobile version consistent with the gameplay of the BBS days. Before scripts. I don't know if you fall in love with the first games you play as a kid, but 25 years later, I still yearn for a 6 month TW bang with a corp of 4 friends.
They're only web-enabled as a convenience to people without old-school ANSI.SYS terminal emulators and DOS fonts. You can TELNET into all of them. SWATH is probably the best modern helper and runs well under WINE on FreeBSD, Linux, and Mac OS X.
My meagre collection of SWATH scripts:
The ICE9 game server:
I don't know if ICE9 still does this, but they used to have a bunch of interesting customizations, like where sectors 1-2000 were a lightly regulated federation space were connected to a small 10-sector neutral zone, with the Star Dock sector being the jumping-off point into the wider universe. I loved playing there!
Cruncher's Trade Wars server:
Cruncher's is small but fun, with a variety of games and regular resets.
I was in middle school...so this would have been mid 90's.
I was connected to the Internet using a freenet that was provided by SEFLIN (South East Florida Library Information Network)...text based. People who had real internet ran applications, and using ICQ to chat (since you can scan the in network chat for teams chattering!) I was using plain ol text based Internet...and Pine was my email program. I still use nano very often as my editor of choice :)
One time my local BBS moved to Miami...but the area code was still 305. It was considered long distance, even though the area code was the same. I racked up quite a telephone bill.
I still miss those days.
After that, the problem was paying for long distance calls to more "3l33t" BBS's (usually in Sweden). But we had our ways :-)
412/724 scene, north of Pittsburgh. Lots of good friends met on the boards, some still friends today.
Thanks again, enjoyed this thread!
I ran BBS's from the late 80's through the 90's. All the local sysops are still friends and we still wax nostalgic over the old days. To a person, we all are still in IT and hold senior positions.
When I remember those days and compare them to today, by and large, nothing is 'easy' anymore. It's what happens when you get to far away from the metal.
A few memories:
1) I had a 2400 baud modem, and then upgraded to an external 14.4K US Robotics Courier. They were $1000 at the time but USR offered it at $500 in return for advertising their brand. Someone on my BBS paid that fee in exchange for higher access.
2) I'd trade snippets of source code with other BBS authors. We'd exchange the code to implement one feature for another.
3) There were a few beta testers, distributors, and artists.
It's what started my interest in building and releasing software, for sure.
Right after Caller ID was introduced, I thought it would be a great idea to use it to log somebody into my BBS directly. So I wrote up the software that would extract it, dip the db, and log the user in if found, otherwise, it'd go to normal login (in case of calling from another DID).
I was a STAR
Then a user figured out how to spoof caller id and as I sat there, and watched the user log in as ME. LOL! Took me all of 5s to rip that out :D
My first modem was a 300 baud that we tweaked up to 450 baud. When I shut down my BBS years later, I was running 3 lines on TBBS and I had no files or doors. It was strictly a message board with no networking (been there, done that). I specifically limited it to the top 150 participating users. Doesn't sound like much, but all 3 lines were busy constantly.
Around 150 users seems to the magic number. More than that and ppl who lose track of whose who and stop participating. You have to go for big userbases to recover. At least that has been my experience.
I don't have a memory of caller id being around when I ran my BBS, or maybe I just didn't have it.
I ran a single line PCBoard BBS in the mid to late 90's. PCBoard had its own plugins called PPEs. A lot of them were distributed as shareware. After finding a decompiler I had a lot of fun reading source code, making personal keygens, and finding security issues.
I mean, they got the prediction right, but their implementation is so so wrong!
"Will you lose your privacy and civil liberties? You will, and the company that will bring it to you, AT&T."
Great to see an OS/2 based one too - I remember switching to OS/2 for a small time "play" BBS that I set up in the early 90s... I was astounded at the ease of running multiple modem lines on OS/2 as compared to DOS or CP/M...
It was a smallish (~30 people) anime & manga community and the twist was, that the whole board was written by one of the founders in PHP.
I remember him hating on the other BBS because in his eyes they weren't "pure" anymore and in his eyes, they had nothing to do with BBS at all. What can I say... the community broke down because he insisted on his strange BBS and people went to communities who embraced the "social web" with profiles, timelines, blogs etc.
But this was in a time when people said, these new "blogs" were like "guestbooks you write in yourself", which is true and in view of the omnipresent guestbooks on every website, where people wrote that they visited the website, a blog sounded hilarious. Now the concept of a guestbook sounds hilarious and blogs are a backbone of the web...
I eventually made it to the it scene where I had access to and ran the top ftp sites in the world.
I miss those days immensely.
That's how I started programming professionally. One of my friends hired me as a programmer, saying "Anyone who can write a BBS for a Vic can program!" Thirty-three years later, that same friend wants me to work with him at Google.
If I was retired and didn't need to work, I'd still find some software to build and spend my time building it because that's something that I love to do. That's essentially what we were doing back then, so it was a good time.
I think there is some truth to what you're getting at with less noise and constraints and creativity.
Although - during this time, I dreamed of a future when every house and every business had their own BBS. That basically happened in the form of the www. The www and internet would have AMAZED a teenage me, it still does.
I remember that past fondly because they were exciting times for those reasons, but current times are also exciting. :)
There was lots of untapped potential back then which made things exciting. Also, the communities were smaller, like families.
But I have another explanation, which, I think, explains much of it. Being a part of the BBS network meant one had overcome a bit of a hurdle and reached a small community that actually cared about the system and the sense of the community itself. Those BBS islands had their own rules, implicitly or explicitly spelled out, they were full with lots of creativity (cf. the ASCII/RIP art), and while the occasional troll or rude idiot can be found anywhere, posting something to a BBS usually meant you got some response back. It was a smaller circle (at least, it felt that way). You could actually make friends through the BBS network. Today, when I try to post something on HN, I cannot even find it immediately after posting, let alone hope that other people find my submission. :)
The SDF.org bboard feels much in the same way.
I think we now take technology for granted and apps/sites are less special of a thing than BBSs were. Users are fickle, so much is fad-based, and we move on to the next thing without a strong feeling towards the last. Using Snapchat isn't a primary hobby or thing that you devote time to, more of a thing you do while doing some other primary thing. If that makes sense. :)
I doubt that memories of Snapchat will be as strong to a user as memories of BBSs. But who knows.
IIRC you potentially would run into various wild/mutant animals or other players that you could battle. I don't remember much else about it but I remember enjoying it profusely and have been unsuccessful in finding even the name of it now.
Also played a ton of Trade wars.
Land of Devastation?
ANSI first, then an EGA and I think VGA client later?
If it's that, I loved that one. A multi-user Wasteland rip.
From video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7iQIXs6gpc
I remember there was a "replicator" item that that was rumored to exist, but somehow only the admins could ever 'find' them. Always was suspicious about that.