Online communities turn twenty-five

Rupert Goodwins: The online world owes a great debt to two Chicago hackers who got stuck in a snowstorm in 1978.

Winter in Chicago means snow, and lots of it. Twenty-five years and one month ago saw a doozy of a storm. Ward Christensen, mainframe programmer and home computer hobbyist, was stuck at home behind drifts too thick to dig. He'd been in the habit of swapping programs with Randy Suess, a fellow hacker -- in the old sense of someone who did smart things with dumb electronics -- by recording them onto cassettes and posting them. They'd invented the hardware and software to do that, but in that same chilly month of 1978 someone called Bill Hayes came up with a neat circuit called the Hayes MicroModem 100. Ward called Randy, complained about the weather, and said wouldn't it be a smart idea to have a computer on the phone line where people could leave messages. "I'll do the hardware. When will the software be ready?" said Randy.

The answer was two weeks later, when the Computerised Bulletin Board System first spun its disk, picked up the line and took a message. February 16th, 1978 was the official birthday: another two weeks after it really came to life, says Christensen, because nobody would believe they did it in a fortnight. He's got a point: these were the days when you couldn't just pop down to PC World and pick up a box, download some freeware and spend most of your time wondering what colour to make the opening screen.

Everything about the CBBS was 1970s state of the hobbyist's art: a single 173-kilobyte 8-inch floppy disk to store everything, 300-baud modem, 8-bit processor running at a megahertz or so, and -- blimey -- 64kb of memory. Christensen wrote the BIOS and all the drivers (as well as the small matter of the bulletin board code itself), while Suess took care of five million solder joints and the odd unforeseen problem. Little things were important: the motor in the floppy disk drive ran from mains electricity instead of the cute little five volts of today -- things burned out quickly if left on. So the floppy had to be modified to turn itself on when the phone rang, keep going for a few seconds after the caller had finished to let the rest of the computer saved its data, and then quietly go back to sleep. Tell the kids of today that...

The kids of yesterday didn't need telling. Bulletin boards running CBBS spread across the US and further afield; by 1980, Christensen was reporting 11,000 users on his board alone, some of whom called in from Europe and Australia -- in the days of monopoly telcos with monstrous international call charges. But that was because there was nothing else like it. People dialled in and got news instantly -- well, after five hours of engaged tone -- that would otherwise have to wait for the monthly specialist magazines to get into print. And of course, they could swap files and software, starting the process which today has grown into the saviour of the human race or the destroyer of all that is noble and good (pick one).

The experience of a BBS (the C got dropped as alternative programs proliferated) was very different on some levels to our broadband, Webbed online lifestyle. Three-hundred baud is around five words a second: you can read faster than that. Commands were single characters, messages were terse but elegant, while a wrong command can land you with a minute's worth of stuff you just didn't need to know. Some software even threw users off who pressed too many keys without being productive enough: it was a harsh, monochrome and entirely textual world.

It was also utterly addictive. For the first time, people could converse with others independently of social, temporal or spatial connections. People made the comparison at the time with the great epistolary conversations of the Victorians, where men and women of letters sent long hand-written notes to each other two or three times a day, but BBS life was much more anarchic than that. You didn't know with whom you were swapping messages, but you could quickly find out if they were worth it. At first envisioned as local meeting places where people who knew each other in real life could get together from home, BBSs rapidly became entrepots for complete strangers -- the virtual community had arrived, with its joys, flamewars and intense emotions.

Ten years later, bulletin boards had evolved into a cooperative mesh of considerable complexity, A system called Fidonet linked them together, so mail from one could be forwarded to another anywhere in the world via a tortuous skein of late night automated phone calls. File-transfer protocols, graphics, interactive games and far too much politics had all transformed that first box of bits and chips beyond recognition.

Then came that world's own extinction-level event, as the asteroid of the Internet came smashing through the stratosphere and changed the ecosystem for good. That we were ready for the Net, and that every country had its own set of local experts who'd been there, done that and knew what to do next, is in large part due to the great Chicago snowstorm of 1978 and two people who rolled up their sleeves to make a good idea happen. It's an anniversary well worth remembering.


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