Quaint relics of the pre-Internet era

Who else remembers the days of the BBS? Back in the 1980s I used to hang out on various dial-up bulletin boards, before the internet. They weren’t truly interactive — some used only a single phone line, a few fancy ones could handle a couple of simultaneous connections, but generally you’d log in, browse a couple of messages other people had left, maybe leave one yourself, and log out again, all at 300 baud. When the fancy 1200 baud modems came out (I bought one that was military surplus), my old Apple II struggled to keep up with the furious data rate, and I actually wrote my very own telecommunications program — in 6502 Assembler, of course, using the wonderful ORCA macro assembler package — and took the daring step of cutting a lead on my mother board to enable interrupts, and building the program around a custom interrupt handler just so it would stop dropping characters. I was a true nerd.

It all came rushing back with this article in the Atlantic, The Lost Civilization of Dial-Up Bulletin Board Systems. I abandoned them in the 1990s when the Internet became ubiquitously available, although still often through dial-up lines from home. Apparently some tiny number of them still hang on. There are actually 20 dial-up BBSes still running, somewhere?

But every mass extinction has its holdouts. Even today, a small community of people still run and call BBSes. Many seek the digital intimacy they lost years ago; 373 BBSes still operate, according to the Telnet BBS Guide, mostly in the United States. Many are set up to be accessible via internet-connected tools like Telnet, a text-based remote-login protocol originally designed for mainframes.

Did any direct-access, telephone-dial-up BBSes survive the internet’s proverbial asteroid? Sure enough, there are about 20 known dial-up BBSes in North America. And of those, only a handful have been running non-stop since the mid-1990s. These are the true dinosaurs walking among us. Who dares to run such antique systems, and why? Have any of them been left running by accident like the BBS in my dream? I had to find out.

Yes, why? I want to know. It turns out that many of them are just kept up for nostalgia’s sake, but others are…are you surprised to learn that they’re maintained by delusional right-wing paranoids?

Ten years ago, when I dipped back into BBSes, I still got a sense that many sysops ran them to provide a libertarian alternative to the internet. Among them, the unoppressed who wanted religious freedom, the unsurveilled who wanted freedom from surveillance, and those prepping for the day when BBSes would provide shelter after the internet came crashing down.

It was never an alternative to the Internet. It couldn’t be. You’d have to argue that the Post Office was just a slow version of blogging if you go down that path.


  1. mod prime says

    Pedantry: BBS systems, like email ran on the internet starting back in the 70s. They existed before the World Wide Web which was ‘released’ in the 90s.

    I was banned from internet from a similar aborted hardware hack I tried, and almost burned the house down with when I was 8. As such, I used to get my BBS updates by contacting a mail order company who would snail mail me BBS updates by floppy disk. Yup.

  2. says

    Yeah, but I got my first personal computer in 1979, so that’s when it started for me.

    In the 1980s, I was also on DECnet, which worked by physically sharing whole magtapes. I used a VAX 11/780, had to physically mount the tape on the drive, and could then browse a lot of weird content locally.

  3. intransitive says

    I started on BBSs in the 1980s (with only delusions of being a hacker, and none of the skills) on the Apple II and later the Amiga. My college years coincided with cheap internet access and dialup modems, so I was an early internet adopter, before browsers.

    I reminisce most about the local dialup freenet in my old town which sadly no longer exists. At I time when I was barely surviving (minimum wage jobs or on welfare), I could go online with my frankenstein 8088 machine and use Lynx for free an hour per day, more if lines were unoccupied after 11PM. It meant I could job hunt and do other things that got me through and out of hard times.

    It turns out that many of them are just kept up for nostalgia’s sake,

    The Living Computer Museum has (or had) working VAXen and other computers you can use online. I used to have an account, but lost the login years ago. The weird part was what they named the servers: Gein, Gacy, and a third I can’t/don’t want to remember.

    but others are…are you surprised to learn that they’re maintained by delusional right-wing paranoids?

    Not really. There will always be extremists who think logging into stormfront is too risky (or not extreme enough) and lack they lack the technical still to set up a “dark web” site of their own.

  4. says

    There was a certain zen to hitting return and watching the text scroll down the screen. I miss it so much that I have my putty settings in CRT green and blackgreen, just because the colors cast from my monitor make me feel at home and at peace.

    The DECnet you’re talking about – those were the DECUS tapes, right? DECnet was a lan/wan protocol based on a network.node addressing scheme. It was fun when you accidentally picked the same address as a cluster member and the whole cluster tore itself down… It’s one way of feeling wanted, as a junior systems administrator: “all those pitchforks and pretty torches!! For me?!”

  5. says

    There will always be extremists who think logging into stormfront is too risky (or not extreme enough) and lack they lack the technical still to set up a “dark web” site of their own.

    Well, if you want to watch them get really paranoid, just casually drop that the obvious way to monitor extremists would be for the FBI to set up extremist honey-pots.

  6. Dunc says

    There will always be extremists who think logging into stormfront is too risky (or not extreme enough) and lack they lack the technical still to set up a “dark web” site of their own.

    Tor was developed by the US security community, and most the the dark web is tolerated because it provides cover for their activities and it’s a useful honey-pot. No self-respecting anti-government paranoid loon should use it.

    PS I am not a crank.

    (Actually, I’m not… It’s a matter of record that Tor was originally developed so that US intelligence assets could safely communicate with their handlers from foreign countries, and if you don’t think a significant portion of the network is still run by some combination of US security agencies, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. It’s mostly funded by the US government, and I’m pretty sure they’re not doing it for fun.)

  7. whheydt says

    PZ…just as you rightly take people to task for misusing terms and concepts from your profession, I’m going to take you to task for doing that to terms from *my* profession. There is not, and never was, any such thing as a “1200 baud modem”. There were a lot of “1200 bps modems” and they ran at 600 baud, as did the slightly later 2400 bps modems. “Baud” is a measure of change of state of the communications line. A 1200 bps modems transfers 2 bits every time the line state changes (and, for completeness here, a 2400 bps modem transfers 3 bits per baud). The only commonly used standard that had 1 bit per baud was the 0-300 bps one. A 300 bps modem really was a 300 baud modem.

  8. ragdish says

    Back in the 80s I envied those who had an Apple II. Now every electronic device I own is an Apple product. A question to all those aging skeletons like me. What was the difference between an Apple II and an Apple II+?

  9. Owlmirror says

    Back in 2008, Google had a page that allowed you to search their index from 2001 (and that should give pause for thought — they’ve been archiving indexes for all this time?). I recall searching for “pharyngula” and finding only biology references — but I searched for “PZ Myers”, and found a Usenet or mailing list archive where he was responding to some old-tyme kook, possibly Archimedes Plutonium, possibly on the topic of plant development. I can’t find it with a current search of those terms, so I may be misremembering.

    Did you know that PZ used to actually cite the text he was responding to? Even though I can’t find that one page, I did get a hit on the Google Groups archive of talk.origins (Ed Conrad! MAN AS OLD AS COAL!)(also: fishnet.bio.temple.edu), and he does it there.

    But he just stopped doing that at some point, and now it’s all “context is for the weak” and like that.

    (actually, searching on “fishnet.bio.temple.edu”, including the quotes, brings up a lot of old-timey Usenet archives.)

  10. madtom1999 says

    I could probably still load a mag tape onto a Vax11/780 – the tape loading movements are muscle memories I’ll never forget. Even when upgraded to a self-loading tape drive I used to wave my finger by the drive as the tape quacked and buzzed into the feeder.

    I do believe there are still BBS type systems that are connected to via short-wave radio. Now they will still be there when the internet gets fried by a Carrington event. Might see if I can get a RaspberryPi setup for just an eventuality!

    I also helped design chips for the worlds first* 9600 baud modem – even though it was probably 10 years before I got one that fast at home!
    *when I say the worlds first we didnt have the internet then so we couldn’t check for certain!

  11. Richard Smith says

    Ah, memories. I remember the introduction of the zmodem protocol, which actually allowed file downloads to continue after being interrupted when the flaky phone connection, to which so many BBSes seemed prone, hung up mid-transfer. That, plus a speedy little 9600 baud* modem, and I was downloading all sorts of weird Amiga demos.

    * while it may not be correct techspeak, it’s pretty much how they were always marketed. Like how a 512 gig stick mysteriously loses around 35 gigs because marketing likes decimal better…

  12. says

    I describe Fidonet to my grandchildren as “like email, but carried by the Post Office.” Sometimes your private mails would go astray, as they made their way from BBS to BBS, all the way to Argentina, or wherever, and the response taking a similar time to return.

    I hit the Internet in 1990, while an undergraduate, and haven’t really looked back since. Thanks for the hit from the memory bong, PZ.

  13. says

    #11: Everybody was quoting the previous comment, which meant you stacked up these ludicrously deep nested threads everywhere. I was merely doing garbage collection.

  14. wzrd1 says

    Ah, but how many still remember good old fight-o-net (be a sysop there, yeah, it was that bad at times).
    Had all of the fossil drivers to link our New Image networked BBS’s into Fido, had some Fido sysops who had that new fangled intertubes access…*
    Then, the WWW blew up and people massively lost interest.

    *New Image BBS being a fork of old C-net BBS development team, with John Moore, Ray Kelm and a few others splitting off and doing their own thing, due to some creative differences. Ray Kelm, a man who’d literally write object code while we’d be at a party.
    Later, I had some old hardware laying about and ginned up a serial to fossil link that’d let the BBS go out via telnet, but the interest at the time had waned.

    As for Dunc’s comment, 100% spot on. Own the exit nodes, own the network and the NSA does happen to have the most computing power on the planet and had significant input on TOR’s development.
    Something somewhat ironic, as involvement was quite heavy at the time on TOR and SELinux.**

    **SELinux being an obvious effort designed to cause the BOFH to expose himself, having gone safely underground after Y2K. ;)

  15. says

    Now i feel young again. I am 26. I have build (easy) and repaired (harder) hardware and written my own software tools. But the most daring thing i did was melting a hole into the fan cap of my graphics card cooler to re-oil the mount.
    Cutting something on a Mainboard? Even thinking about it lets me breakout into sweat O.O
    And for me BBS is a forum software. Time moves fast in tech.

  16. wzrd1 says

    @alkisvonidas #2, ROFLMAO!
    Best. Ending. Ever.

    I’m gonna have to show the smarter half that one once I get home from work.

  17. wzrd1 says

    @Turi1337 #18, melted a hole in the fan cap?! I pulled the sticker off, gently released the split ring, removed the hub and directly oiled what needed oiling (occasionally, greasing). :)

    But then, I turned 55 just this past Saturday and among my many qualifications, ISCET is one of my certifications. :)

    But, you’re right, in tech, things move fast. Fortunately, our children and grown and out of the house, we’ve been married for over 35 years and well, that leaves me a lot of time to keep up, having no personal life to speak of.*

    *Which is only partially a lie. I actually read very quickly and retain well into the high ninety percentile, we do actually have personal lives.
    But, I also have brown eyes for a reason. ;)

  18. Larry says

    What was the difference between an Apple II and an Apple II+?

    The Apple II+ had slightly better graphics, the capability to handle a disk controller for the external disk drive, and, most importantly, had Applesoft basic in ROM that could handle floating point arithmetic. The Apple II could do only integer. Other than those, they were identical.

  19. rietpluim says

    Heh. I remember the nerds sending computer programs over the radio.
    You’d turn the radio on and hear something like zzzzzghIIIIEERRhRIIGzGzGZZZZggIIII.
    Now that was music!
    The alternative was buying a computer magazine and copy the program by hand.
    Those were the days…

    /geezer geek off

  20. wzrd1 says

    @rietpluim, ya hads to first type in that code to be able to receive the code to be able to not have to type in further code that others typed in.

    I started that way, then learned to code monkey for myself.
    I’ve done code money, cable jockey, cable monkey (hey, you run cables in office ceilings and warehouse ceilings, it’s serious monkey work or you fall), server admin and later, BOFH MK-IV, now work in IA).
    I’m still known to disassemble malware code and figure out whatinhell it’s doing. More reliable than trying to decompile it, to learn that a custom library is missing…
    That came in handy on some odd code, which was found in a USB flash drive, with malware that arrived direct from the factory and was dispensed directly to end users via an unauthorized National Guard recruiter’s drive. Said unauthorized devices arrived at my Persian Gulf installation via the wife of one of said recruiters involved in such an unauthorized effort. After disassembly and recognizing windrives malware, a direct telephone call to to the CIO of the US NGB resulted in a telephone call to my installation, off hours for said CIO, where we expanded upon the known facts and a general recall of all such USB infected hardware ensued, along with some career damaging documentation for those heavily involved in development and deployment of unauthorized hardware.
    I was permitted to retain one example, as a souvenir. One that’s still in my possession, as a warning example of watch what you what can happen with unvetted hardware.

    I’ve been considering setting up a new version of the old BBS. There are a few that are accessible via the internet and modem, although dial-up would be limited. I’m not real interested in getting an octopus cable again, along with the modem card, when telnet and hot metal could do the same general job.
    Under NISSAnet, I had a long distance connect between our local net and Oklahoma and Australia, with an initial fight-o-net feed that later was converted into a lower cost feed to both.
    Yeah, I’m seriously thinking that I will set up a VM for such an effort. We built a very well rounded community.
    Our tech support and life advice forums were our most utilized, followed by a poetry forum. The life advice column was via Dear Crabby.*

    *Which was followed, some years later, with my deployed self, playing Surly Claus at X-mas.

  21. Dunc says

    Now i feel young again. I am 26.

    Ah, bless… You are young, enjoy it while it lasts. ;)

    Cutting something on a Mainboard? Even thinking about it lets me breakout into sweat O.O

    He he… I’ve gone better than that – I’ve soldered a home-made switchboard onto the back of a CPU socket to override its clock settings, and hand-drawn conductive traces on a CPU package to re-enable overclocking… Fun times.