The BBS Universe from the Perspective of a Simple Pleb - by Chickenhead
Ah, the good old days of the BBS. The memories make me smile even today in
this web-enabled world. Back then we really had something didn't we? Or so it seemed–we were part of a strange aristocracy, a techno-elite of sorts.
But I get ahead of myself--first, I should introduce myself a bit. I call
myself Chickenhead these days, but back "in the day" I had a different name I can't even remember. I was a BBS addict, but I didn't use the same name on each BBS. I wasn't a hacker, I wasn't a "phreak". Hell, I didn't trade codes or attack Ma Bell's phone network in any way–I was one of a throng of people eagerly tying up my folk's phone line in the wee small hours, exchanging digital barbs with others doing the exact same thing.
I had my first encounter with a computer back in 1982 or so...I had
a paltry Atari 2600, and a voracious appetite for anything computer related. I was in Grade Six in my elementary school–in September, something pivotal happened. My next-door neighbour's dad was a teacher, and one day he brought home a most wondrous thing–a Commodore PET. He called me over and I had my first taste of home computing.
My folks, recognising my newfound hunger, purchased me a ZX-81 computer for
Christmas that year. The ZX-81 was probably about as powerful as a pocket calculator–you couldn't do much with it (in my opinion). It wasn't long before I began to bug my parents for some REAL meat…a Commodore 64. That summer, my dreams became reality as a C-64 entered my life–along with a 300 baud Commodore VIC modem.
In retrospect, this modem was probably about as cheap and
bottom-of-the-barrel as you can get. The thing wasn't an acoustically coupled modem–it plugged right into the C-64, and the phone line ran right into the cartridge. It wasn't capable of dialling on it's own, so you had to call the number you wanted and then flick the switch on the back of the modem the second the carrier signal was heard on the phone. High-tech at it's best!
But still--this slow, archaic piece of technology was my gateway into a new
world. My first BBS was CompuServe itself. It was a very costly journey to put it mildly, but worth every penny (of my folk's money, of course).
In those days, the only way to access CompuServe was through DataPac,
Canada's X.25 network. I had to call the local PAD, and then connect to CompuServe over that. The local PAD had connection charges on TOP of CompuServe so as you can imagine it got to be pretty damned expensive! But I was 14 year old so I didn't care…my folks were generously footing the bill.
I first heard of CompuServe through a television program broadcast on our
local public access channel (TV Ontario) called "Bits & Bytes". The show was hosted by Billy Van (of the "Hilarious House of Frightenstein" fame, and also the "Bizarre Show"), and Luba Goy (of the "Royal Canadian Air Farce"). My God how I loved this show! As an impressionable youngster I tuned in every week to see the latest episode–Billy struggling to learn the latest bit of technobabble, guided by Luba in her cozy office, looking down on Billy from her projection screen.
One episode involved Billy's voyage into the world of the BBS--he contacted
CompuServe, and the long-departed and forgotten service called "The Source". I was addicted instantly–I had to get "online" somehow. I found my way onto CompuServe using the 5 1/4" floppies that came with my 300-baud VIC modem, using a truly horrible Commodore terminal program.
CompuServe was a hive of activity back in those days. It was
dizzying–there was so much to see, so much to read. Commodore had their own SIG that was rarely updated–but for me, it was damn cool to have this conduit to Commodore Central. I would go there just to see the big ugly ASCII "CBM" logo come up on my screen.
CompuServe's file archives were a wealth of information. I managed to find a
chat log of a live chat with Richard "Lord British" Garriott about the upcoming "Ultima IV", which I devoured religiously.
Long before the Web's promise of online shopping, CompuServe was delivering.
I purchased several games from vendors on CompuServe–I fondly remember receiving my Infocom adventures from American computer stores. I still remember driving down to Canada Customs to pick up my packages. I can't think of Infocom's "Sorcerer" game without thinking "CompuServe".
CompuServe had something else that caught my attention as well: the
so-called "CB Simulator" (what would be known to the world at large as "online chat" someday). The CB Simulator had lots of channels–this was where Richard Garriott had met his fans to talk Ultima. I spent many hours in the CB rooms chatting it up with various people, impersonating celebrities (for some reason I decided to name myself "Yoko Ono") and generally being an asshole.
However, all good things must come to an end. In my case, the VISA bill
arrived and put a quick end to my CompuServe voyages. DataPac is DAMNED expensive!
For a while, I tried trolling BBS numbers listed in warez'd copies of video
game software…you know what I mean, the "greetz screen" that would come up before the game started, listing about a million different handles and aliases, and a few BBS numbers. One such BBS was a 313 (Detroit) BBS called "The Lighthouse".
My friend "Lurch" and I decided we'd become impromptu haX0rs at this point.
We called The Lighthouse and attempted to make our mark. The Lighthouse was a BBS run on a Commodore-64, running the venerable All-American BBS software. The "File Base" was served off of a couple daisy-chained 1541 floppy drives, filled with various kinds of waR3z. Naturally, we didn't make the cut to become members of this elite community of pirates, despite our best efforts to hype ourselves to the erstwhile sysop.
For a time, I left the BBS scene. I graduated from elementary school to
high-school, and eventually entered some computer courses. This was around Grade 11, circa 1986-1987. My computer teacher, a fat, bearded individual who's favourite phrase was "You don't have to know about that…." (I'll call him "Mr. A") was continually droning on and on about various local BBSs. He kept promising that we'd set up a BBS for our high-school right there in our class, but that never happened. Even a decade later he was supposedly telling his class the exact same thing.
"Mr. A" had a real cork bulletin board on the wall. One of the things posted
there was dot-matrix printed advertisement for a local BBS called "The Fisherman's Scroll". For some reason I scribbled down the phone number and filed it away.
Back on the home front, I was getting tired of my aging Commodore 64. The
300 baud modem was laughable–I gave it away to a friend who managed to mangle it beyond recognition with some plumber's solder and an oversized soldering iron. The future was already out there, and it's name was Amiga. I had in my grubby teenaged hands the premiere issue of Amiga World and was devouring every word. Trip Hawkins was proudly announcing to the world that "We See Farther!" and I was already an addict, straining to see whatever it was he saw. I dreamed Amiga dreams.
My dreams became reality one day...a friend's neighbour was selling his
genuine Amiga 1000 computer, complete with every piece of software he owned, including modem. I jumped at the chance…I pooled every cent of the pittance I was making as a pizza flipper at the local pizza joint and became the VERY proud owner of an Amiga 1000. My dream had become true!
Ah, the Amiga. So many flame wars, so many angry rants. But at the time,
1987 to be exact, none of this had happened yet. This machine beguiled me and seduced me in every way. I wanted to do everything…I wanted to program every bit, I wanted to explore every byte.
My brand-spanking-used Amiga came with a 1200-baud Prometheus Pro-Modem.
This re-kindled my interest in the entire BBS phenomenon. I dug up the number for the Fisherman's Scroll and re-entered the world of the BBS.
The Fisherman's Scroll was the most popular BBS in the city it turned out.
The sysop originally started this BBS with a religious bent, but it quickly became the most general-purpose BBS of the city. Everyone that was anyone was on The Fisherman's Scroll. The Fisherman's Scroll was run by Neil Trudel, a genuinely nice guy who would come to your doorstep with a nicely printed-and-bound handbook on how to use the BBS. I still fondly remember the day Neil showed up with my "kit"–all for free at that, he didn't ask for a cent running his BBS.
This BBS was a FIDO-connected Opus BBS. I remember the various echos, which
naturally contained the usual flame wars and grievances…PC vs. Amiga, Atari vs. Mac, Mac vs. Everyone else, Apple ][ vs whoever was left. Ah, good times.
The Fisherman's Scroll had the obligatory list of other BBS systems in the
city: the venerable Dog Star (which operated until 2000), the Shamrock BBS, the Handy Tandy, the Handyman's Project,, The Other Bob's Opus, The Tandy Connection, and a host of others. For some reason, my town seemed to specialise on OPUS-style BBS systems. We had a couple Apple ][-related BBSs, but mostly we were an OPUS town.
The Dog Star was a great place to be back in the late 80's. The sysop,
Mario Dulisse, was your typical grumpy sysop–but that didn't matter much, because he had a kick-ass BBS. As I recall, it was the first BBS in town to offer "doors" online games. Trade Wars was the order of the day: everyone played Trade Wars. Hell, I knew people with several fake accounts trying to stack the game in their favour! God, what great times. Mario, wherever you are–thanks. The Dog Star was awesome.
The message bases, often shared between the various OPUS BBS systems, were
quite lively. The various echos kept you coming back for more on a daily basis. I still remember the flame wars we had…in general, the PC users faced off with the Amiga users. I made many an Amiga-using friend on these echos! The PC-heads would attack the Amigans, and the Amigans would respond in kind. The tables turned only slightly when the PS/2 users appeared–this created an uneasy alliance between PC-heads and Amigans, who summarily ganged up on the PS/2 losers (many flames announced "PS/2, what's that mean? Piece of Shit 2?").
I fondly remember the Apple ][ diehards who were resisting the PC, the Amiga
and the Apple Macintosh. God, these guys were something–I have nothing but respect for the Apple ][ thanks to these guys, even though I was a diehard Commodore lunatic. You won't hear me badmouth the Apple ][….I'm sure that in my sleep, I talk Apple ][ "call" codes thanks to these guys.
It's funny--much of what I remember about BBS forums involved operating
system and computer flame wars! Most of it was quite good-spirited and friendly flaming, but sometimes…well, at one point, a friend I met on The Dog Star managed to anger a couple of die-hard PC users. These PC users decided to seek us out to "teach us a lesson" in person. We both had a laugh when these "die hards" showed up at his door one day, revealing themselves to be a couple of 13-year-old skateboarders.
Thanks to my Amiga, "Mr. A", and my 1200-baud modem, an entire world of
local computing was opening up to me. Heck, thanks to stuff that was saved in the software inherited from the previous owner of my Amiga 1000, I was calling BBS systems in Toronto, like the Toronto Sun and elsewhere. I couldn't get enough!
There was a consistent rumour going around back in 1988 about a local
warez/pirate board called "The Black Orchid". The rumour was that they managed to get a phone book listing for themselves–although it wasn't true. No one knew what their number was, but everyone had heard of them. They were the ultimate chimera–I spent a lot of time trying to track down this alleged "Black Orchid" BBS to no success. I still have no idea whether or not they "really" existed….but this didn't stop me from attempting to get some "street cared" for myself as a bad-assed haX0r.
Let me digress for a moment--I want to talk about BBS-ing as a teenager in
the late 80's. Back then, if you had a modem and were "connected", the BBS was a vital part of your life. If you weren't fanatic about it, you still checked in on a regular basis to see what was up. Hell, I had an active social life in the "real world" of a high-school sophomore and I still had an active alter-ego in the BBS realm. On friday I'd be out at the high-school dance, only to come home and check in at The Dog Star to see what was going on, or to "download a few files". Back before people were literally living on the Internet, the BBS world was a regular part of my life.
It seems that every story about the heydey of the BBS world includes some
sort of brush with authority. Mine is no different, although probably not nearly as exciting as some. I didn't get busted by the Secret Service or the RCMP, but rather by a clueless principal and vice-principal at my high-school.
Back in high-school, our computer classes were taught on ICON computers.
Those of you outside of Ontario, Canada have probably never heard of these beasts–they were based on genuine Intel 186 processors (yes Virginia, there was a 186), and ran the QNX operating system (a UNIX knock-off, still available today!). They were quasi-client/server–there was a file server that each "workstation" booted off. Each ICON terminal had a track-ball instead of a mouse, and a questionable CP/M-MS-DOS emulation mode. It was also the most insecure operating system in the history of computing, as far as I'm concerned.
Our computer teacher, the ubiquitous "Mr. A" was pretty damned lazy--we
constantly made jokes about him going down to the cafeteria several times a day for doughnuts. His idea of "computer programming" was scripting up junk in "WATFILE" on the ICONs. Maybe if we were lucky he'd let us fiddle around with "QBASIC" or even "QSPREAD", the craptastic spreadsheet program on the ICON computers. The real fun stuff was hidden from us behind a wall of administrative priviledge.
Well, naturally the upper crust of this class got pretty damned bored with
it very quickly. My friend Lurch decided he'd had enough–he found a way to get administrator access on the ICON systems with only a simple keystroke. See, each ICON came installed with some sort of "computer aided design" program called "autoskill", with a password of "reading". If you hit control-break during the login process, it would drop you into a root prompt with no password at all.
With the "root" password (called "flexadmin" on these machines), a choice
clique of us was able to explore the "fun" aspects of the ICON systems. One of the most entertaining commands in QNX was the "apb" command, which sent a text message to every terminal on the ICON network. Many messages were covertly sent out…everything from subliminal messages extolling the class to get up en-masse and leave 10 minutes early, to blatant "FUCK YOU!" messages sent to the whole class. The latter once provoked an amusing response from one of the acid-eating headbangers that managed to crawl to class that day…the message was sent, and the burnout yelled loudly "Hey, this machine just told me to fuck off!"
One day Lurch went on a rampage. He changed all passwords to "peaches"
(named after my dog, no less) and locked the fileserver. For an entire month, "Mr. A" pretended that nothing was wrong…we were to do "desk work" and "design stuff". In the mean time, frantic calls to Toronto were made…eventually someone from ICON central arrived with what was called a "sonic screwdriver" to unlock the fileserver and give "Mr. A" access again. Lurch was permanently banned from computer classes at our high-school as a result.
One year later, this opera repeated itself--several lower-grade students got
the password in the same manner. Nothing was done with it, but I was conversing with another student at another high-school about this on a local BBS. Unluckily for me, "Mr. A" was a friend of the sysop of this BBS, and happened to be IN THE ROOM at the time I was typing out the email–he saw everything. Well–this began the witch-hunt in earnest.
See, "Mr. A" hadn't forgotten his humiliation a year before--and this latest
incursion in his territory was not going to be taken lightly. I was in Grade 11 at the time, and had just returned from a family vacation to Jamaica (complete with braided hair).
I got to school one sad February morn and was summoned to the hallowed
offices of the Principal himself. I was greeted by the Principal and his VP, and told to sit at the other end of the inquisition desk.
They made me remove my braids first of all (telling me to "take them out
right now"), which I learned they had no right to do. Then, they grilled me on what was going on in the computer class–passwords, security breaches, the whole enchilada. They foolishly claimed that the computer teacher had seen all on his friend's BBS–this was true, but it was still HIGHLY ILLEGAL of them to admit it. This was my out, naturally. Once I responded that they couldn't legally DO that, and that the school board would not look kindly on illegal eavesdropping, they backpedalled pretty fucking quickly. But on one thing they did not relent: I could not take computer classes at my high-school anymore! My good friend Mr. Confusion suffered the same fate–we were twin martyrs to an accidental cause. He was the recipient of the e-mail I had been composing that fateful day the computer teacher had been eavesdropping.
So, alternative arrangements were made with what was called the "Alternative
School"–a school for adult students. We signed on with Brian, a very receptive teacher indeed. He knew why we were there–that allegedly we had "hacked" our school computer system. He didn't care–he thought it was great, and encouraged us to learn more. The Alternative School also had ICON computer systems but Brian GAVE us the administrator password. While our peers were languishing in WATFILE hell, we were learning C programming and MORE. Our clueless school administrators had done us a HUGE favour, in the end, and all thanks to our eavesdropping computer teacher "Mr. A".
After our aborted "fall from grace", I personally became less active in the
BBS community. Maybe that was because I was close to graduating from high-school and had a great girlfriend…whatever, the end result is that I disconnected from the BBS world for a while.
Along came university. University brought a whole world of UNIX mainframes
to play on. But we had a hard-assed administrator in charge of computing services. This person, known as "Boob", had an irrational fear of anything that wasn't an MS-DOS prompt. He got his jollies by restricting people's access to the outside world–yes, in 1990 we were completely cut off from the Internet by a technophobic administrator. This gave the BBS world a whole new lease on life for students at my particular university.
It wasn't long after moving from home to my new apartment in a whole new
town that I discovered the local BBS scene. I signed on to an Amiga-based C-NET BBS called "Bakersfield", and it's cousin-BBS "The Dark Side" (also C-NET). Bakersfield had access via UUCP to something I'd never heard of before…something called USENET. From the realm of FIDONET I took my first steps into the wilds of USENET, running headlong into my first flame war. It was a stunning experience–from that point forward I was determined to get onto the Internet, and specifically onto USENET, no matter what I had to do.
By my second year of university, rumours were flying of a secret "back door"
out of our university network over UUCP via a certain local BBS called "The Swamp". Somehow they had a UUCP link-up between our university and the outside world–you could successfully send mail through this backdoor to the rest of the world. I signed on to this BBS not for the BBS content, but for access to the "back door"–it was at this point I knew my lust for the BBS scene was almost dead. The BBS had lost it's lustre to the immensity of USENET. The wider Internet was yet to come.
Finally, after my second university term was complete, the technophobic
admin "Boob" was replaced by a better sysadmin, and the AT&T 3B2 boxes were replaced by larger DYNIX-running mainframes. And best of all, the Internet was wide open to everyone. This signified the sad end of my BBS career as I lost myself in a world of USENET, FTP and Telnet (keep in mind this was several years before the web).
So here we are in the new millennium. Strange as it seems, I look back at
Is BBSing dead? Not entirely. Syncronet and Citadel/UX are prime examples
of how the BBS has evolved in the Internet age. Their networks are separate from the Internet, and their small communities are thriving. Even outside the age of slow modems, UUCP and XMODEM, the BBS lives on. Who knows, given the state of the Internet today, their time may be coming again.