Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
History of Fidonet (1993) (olografix.org)
176 points by unilynx on Nov 30, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 75 comments

It was chilling to read the last section (starting “This was pretty cool ... for a while ...“). The network got big enough that people who “had nothing to do with the design, creation or maintenance of the FidoNet software” started asserting control over how the project was run, and forming committees. Shortly after, it sounds like political struggles led to forks and disillusioned members.

When I think about all the code-of-conduct/governance/etc advocacy that comes from outside the core of today’s big projects, it’s hard not to worry about the similarities.

Reminds me of Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

> In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.

Sounds a lot like US government politics today, sadly.

Funny you say that. When I was sending compressed FidoNet Trafic (Looking like encryption) to Soviet block countries I got a knock on my door from men in black suits (FBI) asking me what I was doing?

The thing with FidoNet though, after they created the hierarchical zone:net/node.point system, is that the higher up in the hierarchy you were, the higher your phonebills would be, and the more responsibility you had in the form of delivering the mail of your downstream nodes. Everyone was "indebted" to the people above them in the hierarchy, creating an almost feudal system.

But at the same time, you had to be technically competent to be a higher-up, to be a coordinator of some sort. And if you weren't, everyone below you would simply move to a different upstream node, or demote you from your position. So it was a weird meritocratic sort of feudal system.

> it’s hard not to worry about the similarities.

I don't find it hard to not worry about it at all.

It's all fun and games until the locusts run out of crops to eat.

BBS: The Documentary Part 4 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Cm6EFYktRQ) has some great interviews with Tom Jennings & co. on the beginnings, growth and decline of Fidonet.

"It just runs in spite of the idiots." (Tom Jennings)

Highly recommend this documentary and, especially, the entire episode devoted to Fidonet.

For those that don't know, the BBS Documentary is something like 6 DVDs and has hours of well produced and documented material and interviews.

Yes. A lot of pretty rare information. BBSing existed as a relatively niche mostly hobbyist community that was largely both decentralized and disjoint from the early, pre-mainstream Internet.

As a result, with a few exceptions like Jason Scott's textfiles, there was relatively little archived documentation/stories/archives about BBSs at the time and very little of that has survived. (BBSs pretty much all got shutdown at some point and there's very saved from discussions, especially outside of the relays.)

It’s the best! I wish there were more things like it.

It does me no credit but I feel I must admit throughout the eighties and nineties many of my fellow sysadmins and I were not kind about Fido and like BBS, from our extremely privileged and funded dialup inter-uni UUCP and subsequently TCP/IP world view, it was already dead. These kinds of cultural snobbery do us no credit, and it's clear that nicer and wiser heads than mine ran cross connects and it became what John Quartermain called "the matrix" long before the movie.

I was an upstream of one or two BBS for a few years, gatewaying Usenet news and email. We treated them exactly like the UUCP and ACSnet feeds, and the military over x.25 and OSI x.400 mail, but we didn't always feel very charitable towards them.

I now respect this kind of self organised bootstrapping behaviour much more.

This brings back so many good memories. Getting a message from someone on the other side of the world and thinking "are you kidding me?". This was back in '94 and this document about Fidonet's beginnings was written in '85. It just goes to show how far behind my country was.

Cheers to that. I suspect that you may still be particularly fond of Zyxel modems too :)

Courier HST or death

Couriers were great, but not as good as Hayes. Of course the Hayes modems cost twice as much so everyone bought the USR modems instead.

Pshaw - I still have my Supra 14.4, 28.8 and 56 modems. Use 'em to feed fax servers since that's about the only real use for modems still. Stacked on top of each other with their displays rotating... the memories!

Don’t forget US Robotics we’re really the kings, always faster with their not-yet-standards.

Meanwhile I was doing pretty well with my Spectrum Peripherals 14.4k before I got my fancy Zoom 56k...

I'll be buried next to my PSION Gold Card :)

Running a FidoNet-connected BBS meant I had direct access to read every EchoMail group I could subscribe my BBS to. At the time it was a great source of real, insightful written conversation. Because the readers were text-based, and it was all on my hard drive, I could consume postings at such great speed. (spacebar, spacebar, spacebar...)

The memories.

> Because the readers were text-based, and it was all on my hard drive, I could consume postings at such great speed.

You didn't have to run a BBS to do this. Using an offline mail reader like Blue Wave [1] and downloading QWK files [2] allowed anyone to do it—and helped keep the lines, as downloading was (relatively) quick compared to reading 'online'.

I initially got "on" Usenet by downloading SOUP files from a local free-net [3].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Wave_(mail_reader)

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QWK_(file_format)

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free-net

Those offline mail readers were awesome - I preferred OLX.

In fact, when I finally got email, I wrote a QB program to convert my inbox to QWK format. I would then use OLX to read/reply to emails. I don't recall, but I probably used OLX's Save As to store my replies to text files which I then uploaded to my online mail server.

I used OLX for emails until at least 1999.

> I used OLX for emails until at least 1999.

Seems you can still get it:

* http://www.santronics.com/products/olx/index.php

Oh how I wished online forums supported QWK or OLX for offline reading. Most online forum software are an abomination of animations, clicks and excessive waiting for crap to load.

https://github.com/CyberShadow/DFeed the forum software behind https://forum.dlang.org/ offers NNTP feeds. More web forum software should do that.

BlueWave was such a great way to read mail comparing to Gmail for example. Got me thinking about building an online clone if it just for fun.

Thanks for the blast from the past. You've just reminded me how awesome mail was back then. Do you remember IceEdit?

Blue Wave was the first piece of shareware I registered. I still have the floppy.

After FidoNet Tom Jennings has gone on to have a long and fascinating career mixing art and technology, with a good side dose of car hacking and queer activism. His current website is at http://sr-ix.com/

Indeed! It's hard to describe how influential and wide-ranging his career has been, but I'll try:

Besides pioneering FidoNet, Tom Jennings also started another early ISP in 1992 originally running out of John Gilmore's basement in San Francisco called TLG: The Little Garden, named after a Chinese food restaurant in Palo Alto that was popular with techies:


John Gilmore had a T1 line to his house in the Haight, and TLG customers (I mean the ISP, not the restaurant) would pay for their modem and a phone line to be installed, and for their monthly phone bill and share of the T1 line. Tom did all the wiring in the basement, which was a work of art that really impressed the technician from the phone company when he came over to install more lines. John said they charged the minimum amount necessary in order to set a baseline that other ISPs would eventually have to compete with, at a time when nobody else would sell you a cheap fast connection to the internet.




>There's a kind of cheap theatric irony in the fact that Jennings first took control of The Little Garden (TLG), a San Francisco provider of Internet access, when he was on food stamps; yet now that TLG has more success than he and his staff can keep up with, he's looking for an exit play, to sell out. He wants to stop working the entrepreneur's 90-hour weeks and is talking about buying a piece of safe, income-generating commercial real estate.


>The Little Garden (with John Romkey, David Henkel-Wallace, and Steve Crocker)

>A medium-sized Internet Service Provider in the San Francisco Bay Area. now merged into Verio. We mostly sold T1 and 56K Internet connections to businesses. We were distinguished from many other early commercial providers by our common-carrier attitude: "You are free to resell the service that we provide to you, and we will not censor it." This enabled a whole crop of smaller resellers in various locales to buy from us and offer other services to the public (like modem-based Internet connections). These resellers contributed to our volume of Internet traffic, and enabled us to provide higher quality service at lower prices. TLGnet was sold to Best Internet Communications in July, 1996, and my active involvement in it ended. (Best was then bought by Hiway Technologies, which was then bought by Verio.)

You can see more of Tom's elegant technological artwork on his site here:



He co-founded a skateboarder's rights group called Shred of Dignity, which fought against San Francisco city hall and won.


>Tom Jennings: Shred of Dignity started out life as Duke Crestfield and Shawn Ford flyering to get support to stop a city-wide ban of skateboarding in San Francisco.

>Shawn Ford: I found this article about the proposed skateboarding ban. I was probably 17 or 18 and I had never been politically active. I talked to my skate friends, but they were kind of apathetic. Fucking hippies, you know? For me, the skateboard was a necessity.

>Tom Jennings: Duke made up the name, as a triple-entendre/pun, originally to be a gay skateboarders group. No, I won’t explain it.

>Shawn Ford: Duke was in his 20s and had already been politically active, so he set it up and we started collecting signatures. We met all these kids who had never been politically active, and Duke showed everybody what to do. Tom Jennings put down some money for photocopying, and within a week or two, we were taking ramps to the park and having BBQs and meetings, all with the intention of fighting this thing at City Hall.

>Tom Jennings: We overturned the ban with some of Duke’s political/theatrical maneuvers.

Tom Jennings also published a gay queer anarchist skater zine called "Homocore", which spawned a punk subculture offshoot called "Queercore", and led to Riot Grrrl.





I saw a somewhat recent interview with Jennings where he called Silicon Valley a "cult of money" now. This struck me as such a succinct label that captures the essence of the current state of things on so many levels.

Wow, thanks! Earlier FIDO stories never mentioned that Tom's later life was as inventive as Fidonet. WP's bio also notes that he 'built Wired magazine's first internet presence, wrote the portable BIOS that led to Phoenix Technologies BIOS' and is currently on the faculty at Calarts in L.A.

Turkey had its own FidoNet-style network called HitNet (with the prefix "8:" instead of "1:") back in the 90’s. It had about 400 active users nationwide. I had even written an offline mail reader software compatible with QWK and BlueWave: https://github.com/ssg/wolverine

> Turkey had its own FidoNet-style network called HitNet (with the prefix "8:" instead of "1:") back in the 90’s.

Given that FidoNet only went up to Zone 6, they could just leverage the same technical standards:

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FidoNet#Geographical_structure

I remember there being other "nets", but cannot for the life of me remember their names.

in 1992..1996 FidoNet was almost the only means of connecting with the world in Russia. I think I can still determine the baud rate of the connection by how it sounds.

I was able to whistle dialtone and handshake precisely enough for nearby modem to report CONNECT 300/NONE .

FidoNet (and similars, like WWIVnet) directly led to my career today which is largely centered around distributed data systems (and how the data flows around them.)

If I hadn't been fascinated with projects like reimplementing WWIV's network protocol to bridge it to my FIDONet supporting BBS, or implementing IEMSI and other things surrounding echomail/etc. I don't think I'd have developed the necessary interest to become a career software engineer, especially not in this space.

I really miss that moment in tech. The social connections were still somewhat on a "natural" scale and showed hope for improving the world instead of clearly damning it. I appreciate many other improvements that have happened, don't think I truly pine for those times overall. But the mass open social networks of now are truly ruining society and being involved in progressing this kind of communication makes me feel at fault, if even only for an infinitesimally small amount.

My BBS was up from about 1991 to 1995 or so. I still have all of my data. It lasted until I graduated high school, which was at about the same time that I got a dail-up shell account from a friend, which allowed me to directly access the Internet. That changed everything.

Eventually, that Spring, I installed Windows 3.1 specifically so that I could use Netscape, which was at version 1.1 at the time.

FidoNet was a big part of why I ran that board, and it was my gateway to the world in the early 90s. I met so many people that way.

Nostalgia dialed to 11 for me (pun intended). I missed these “simpler times,” where the technology world was filled with those who built and cared about it, filled with blind optimism. I grew up in SF and started attending 2600 meetings with Adrian Lamo at age 12 (RIP). It’s unbelievable looking back on all of this how accepting adults were of my youth and were so willing to chat with me and give me equipment, etc despite my young age. I first was on BBSes about age 7!

Now the same people who used to make fun of me for my computer interests are working for Twitter. How the world changes once there’s money and mainstream success in something. I can’t help but feel slightly bitter about it, especially as I see all of the negativity now spreading across technology what with the great firewall, misinformation, and all.

Net209 - those were the days. Of course having a local call to the Western Star didn't hurt either ;-)

Sysop meetings at Shakey's Pizza - nothing beats in person meet ups!

EDIT: It just dawned on me - how amazing is it that now that long distance calls are generally free (at least here in the US) that lots of people don't get the significance of "local call". What at time.

(Zone 1) Net250, Toronto, Canada, checking in.

> Net209

Las Vegas?

* https://stuff.mit.edu/afs/athena/reference/net-directory/hos...

>Las Vegas?

Yup! I wonder what happened to Dave James and some of the other heavyweights from the local sysops. A few still have boards that are Internet accessible. I hadn't thought about it for years now but my first Intel PC was a cast off from Dave's bbs - a 33 MHz 386DX that had DIP and SIMM memory - 4MB of each. A beast back in those days. Was in a AT case - I still miss the big red on/off switch in the back right corner of the AT cases. Such a satisfying thunk when you turned the machine on or off.

Thanks for linking to that . . . it was fascinating to search through it for some of the small rural places I've lived or had connections to and see familiar names pop up, and think "of course he would have run FidoNet node".

Was not too surprised to see Joe Barr (Austin) in there. He died in 2008 and Linux Journal, where a lot of his writing was published, is gone now also.

they already didn't get it in the 90s.

from the early days of the internet:

a host is a host from coast to coast, and noone will call a host that close, unless the host that isn't close, is busy hung or dead.

Brings back memories.

My first ever email was sent via a local BBS and relayed via Fidonet to the authors of WinZIP, asking them if they plan to support creating multispan arj archives on disk first so I can copy them and FDDs and be able to copy again a single failed archive and not restart the whole process from scratch if for some reason one of the drives had an error.

What I remember of my '94 sysop kit: 486/dx2-66, OS/2 (3.1?), Synchronicty, MailGate and XeniaMailer (I ran a fido <=> uucp node) and something I'm forgetting I'm sure.

> OS/2 (3.1?)

DESQview and QEMM on DOS was also popular. It wasn't fully multi-taking, but it worked quite well.

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DESQview

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QEMM

You also had to have a COM port that was connected to a 16550A UART, often done via a serial add-in card, because it had a whopping 16 byte buffer:

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/16550_UART#The_16550_FIFO


There was lots of WWIV around but they did not use Fidonet, they used WWIVnet which was not interoperable (different protocols and such). I believe the Renegade code branch of WWIV source was Fidonet capable but it's been too long, memory is very fuzzy.

There were a few ways for WWIV-Fidonet integration. One was using Doors.


What I miss most from those days is strict quoting code:

АN>> this was the original message

SG> first reply, text _below_ the quotation

With more levels, original initials were preserved, quotes we're kept at necessary minimum, and email correspondence was very organized. Not the mess we have now with replies at the top and the rest of all thread below

I spent over a decade on usenet and only saw that convention used a handful of times. Most of the time, clients would just use multiple > or | symbols to indicate quoting level without any initials.

Just opened a random echo conference archive [1], and thistype of quoting is everywhere. Maybe it's the regional thing, of course, or just because everyone used GoldEd editor, which supported such quotes very well.

[1] http://www.fandom.ru/fido/ru_fantasy/text/303.htm

If you like this document you should watch the documentary. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBS:_The_Documentary

During this time I was the REGION 9 cordionar for Fidonet and latter to become the president of IFNA.

I agree Fidonet suffered from politics from the first meeting in Coloradio Springs. As a software development project and public resource it was fasinating to see it work. Even the side stories should be told. SeaDog and ARC data compression (Later to become ZIP). Xmodem and SLIP are also tied into these stories.

I don't miss the $800 dolar phone bills I plaid for myself or the politics. I do miss the people.

My personal contribution was "The Communicator" modem program (Freeware AKA Open Source) and the inspration for ProComm.

Fidonet and many of the other message networks based on another standard, QWK, were awesome. One of the better things was to be part of the collective you had to prove you set up your BBS to handle the proper packet transfers:

"This is why node numbers aren't given out "word of mouth", or at other sysops request. It has to be done directly, as a test."

I remember struggling getting the old WWIV software to handle the message transfers of Fido, but when it finally worked it felt like I cracked the world.

Of course, there were elitists on the Fido side that sneered at WWIV BBSes, but that is another story. lol

> Fido 51 is an extremely busy system; they receive 125 messages a week through FidoNet alone, so please be patient.

Holy crap how the times have changed.

Man talk about flash from the past. My MajorBBS based BBS was on Fidonet from 1993-1994 before I switched over to being a dialup ISP.

The guy who co-ran the BBS with me leaked our serial number after we had a falling out. Was “fun” trying to get support from Galacticomm after that, despite having the original manuals with the serial number printed on it as proof I really owned it.

nwgeegd9j ?

Nope, that’s another one that started showing up online a few years later.

For the people like myself who do not know what Fidonet is, and just want to read the comments.

FidoNet is a worldwide computer network that is used for communication between bulletin board systems (BBSes). It uses a store-and-forward system to exchange private (email) and public (forum) messages between the BBSes in the network, as well as other files and protocols in some cases.

- Wikipedia

Fidonet still operates, along with many other FTN networks, on BBS's still run by sysops.

Check out the Telnet BBS Guide:


I remember connecting to Fidonet back in 1994ish in Ottawa and asking somebody why we don't have Fiber optic cables in my city. I was still in high school and had no idea what I was doing. I did have a neighbourhood friend though that ran a "Renegade" BBS. Our list of BBSs were in the back of MONiTOR magazine. Wow. So many memories!

Renegade as in the bbs software?


I used Fidonet in Belarus just before the sunset, so to say, from 2004 to 2009 or so. It was very interesting experience.

I have lots of good memories of FidoNet. I was a teenager with a modem, computer, and lots of curiosity. I had been using BBSes for a few years, but they were all local to me, dialing up to various numbers where I lived (Long Island, New York).

The idea that I could connect not just to people on a local system, but with others around the world, was just amazing.

I wasn't a part of the technical infrastructure, and I clearly missed out on a lot of the politics and discussion... but I had lots of good discussions with others, and even contributed a few articles to FidoNews back in the day. The fact that they were willing to let a teenager write for them was extremely encouraging for me.

Thanks to all of the FidoNet folks for the amazing stuff that they did, and for giving me a taste of an online community before using the Internet when I started college.

I started on Wildcat BBS from Mustang and bumped into FidoNet in the early 90's. This was all very decentralized perhaps the crypto-kiddies can glean some intel from the up/downs from this FidoNet story.

I've always struggled to understand how Fidonet (and BBSes) was different to Usenet.

From what I gathered, Usenet was a decentralised network from the start, whereas BBSes were distinct communities and Fidonet was a solution to connect these communities together. I believe Usenet also runs on TCP/IP, unlike BBSes which you dialed into.

Can anyone shed some light on the above?

This was posted on HN several days ago:


Usenet didn't start out by running over TCP/IP.

It was kind of similar. But insane phone bills was a major issue at the time. We're talking 1€ or more for a few minutes of connection. Plus, internet service was very expensive and there weren't many advantages to it because the www didn't exist. Instead you had BBSes in your own local area code which were much cheaper to call. From those you got your latest FidoMail and also the latest games. :) Given that it was all volunteer-run and (almost) no money exchanged hands, it worked amazingly well.

Surprisingly, the only previous thread seems to be this one from 2016, which laments its own lack of responses:


Hopefully the current one is making up for it.

Good times. I operated a Renegade BBS in OKC, specializing in AI, but still consuming everything I could from FidoNet. Didn't the first versions of Linux (before it was called Linux) distribute over FidoNet?

> Fido 51 is an extremely busy system; they receive 125 messages a week through FidoNet alone, so please be patient.


I wasn't net-aware with Fidonet but I grasped some late Usenet in ~2001-2003. I liked it a lot.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact