When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

Summary: ZDNet's 20th anniversary: Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. The BBS SysOp rides again!


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

Wait, back up.

Before the dark times, before the Empire...

No, that's not it either.

There was a time, not so long ago, when average folks couldn't get internet access. they were forced to struggle with slow dialup connections and call bulletin board systems--BBSes--to interact with other people online.

We had email, we had message forums, and downloadable file libraries. Heck, we even had multi-line chat boards where up to 64 people could dial in at the same time to talk with each other in text chat.

For the people that couldn't afford a subscription to services like CompuServe, Prodigy, GEnie, or even the early progenitor of America Online, there were dialup BBSes. Those subscription services were widely available, but ridiculously expensive.

Getting access to a BBS in those days was fairly simple. You bought a modem for your computer, plugged the phone line into it, and used the terminal software that came with your modem to connect to a BBS of your choice. Numbers for BBSes were available in all of the popular computer-related magazines.

Most BBSes were free, although some provided premium services that might require payment. Once you connected, you could log on as a new user, provide some basic information about yourself, and start using the BBS right away.

BBSes even had their own store-and-forward network much like the internet back then, called Fidonet. All functions were handled by computers using front-end mailer applications which would collect and forward echomail message groups and private email and move them around the globe, all over dialup modem connections. I highly recommend reading the Wikipedia article on Fidonet to learn more.

BBS system operators--or SysOps--were an inventive lot. Most of us used tools that didn't always function properly, or had trouble interoperating with other necessary applications. It was a delicate balance to get a BBS running smoothly from a combination of disparate parts. I will not bother going into the details of what applications were available, as most of them no longer exist.

My day job as a field service technician allowed me to run a free BBS with two dialup lines. My system was an IBM PS/2 55SX (386SX) with 8MB of RAM and a 200MB SCSI drive. Not top of the line, to be sure, but beefy enough to multitask a BBS under DesqView and later OS/2.

In 1991, I was running Shadowdale BBS, which had already been online for three years. The BBS software I used was Telegard, originally based on the code from WWIV. I had come across Telegard completely by accident when I decided to start running my own BBS, and eventually became involved in supporting it officially. By 1991, I was alpha site #2, second only to the site run by the software developer himself, Martin Pollard.

Unfortunately, SysOps tended to be a fractious lot, and there was a lot of struggle and in-fighting within the organization of support sites and the BBSes we provided support for. By the end of 1991, Martin and I had had enough, and resigned. Telegard continued to be developed and supported by Tim Strike after Martin and I left, until 1999.

While I was busy with Telegard, I was also heavily involved in my local Fidonet network--Net 278, New York City. I ran the Net Echomail hub, handling the transfer of all message forums (analagous to Usenet newsgroups) into and out of our net, while my friend Howie Ducat ran the net hub, which handled administration and email.

At its peak, Fidonet handled over 30,000 nodes, or BBSes. If each of those BBSes had only 50 users, that would still be over 1.5 million users. A tiny spectrum compared to the internet today, but when the internet became commercially available, it was just as small.

When internet access had "arrived" by 1994, the writing was already on the wall. Fidonet still exists in a very diminished capacity, and personally I wonder why it even bothers since everything about it is archaic and redundant. I'm sure the remnants that remain would beg to differ.

BBSes provided very close-knit communities. After all, unless you were calling one of the big services that had local dialup presence in every city, calling long distance to a BBS could become very expensive. So most BBS systems had users that were local to each other. If you were fortunate, you were a regular on a BBS that also had in-person gatherings. I have fond memories of this period in my life, and made many friends through the BBS world. I'm still in touch with a number of them to this day.

» Return to ZDNet's 20th Anniversary Special

Topics: Hardware, Browser, CXO, Collaboration

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  • Great Article! Brings back so many memories...

    Never a sysop but most definitely a power user back in the day!
  • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

    i ran a fossil/opus bbs on a well modified DEC rainbow. custom wired memory expansion boards, two "custom modified pre rd 54" disks, named "yoda's realm" , related to some work i was doing at the time
    life was great
  • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

    Oh yeah! Those were the days... I was a member of several BBSes, and some of them had regular monthly get-togethers if people actually wanted to meet face-to-face. You could trade files with people on some sites, both pictures and programs. The original social networking through computers.
  • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

    When my workplace bought 2 state of the art IBM-PC's (2 floppies, 640 k RAM, a Hercules graphics card and a modem - what was that first speed?) I got to play with them for an hour every morning. Was a regular on about 4 BBS's and found them very useful. This was back in the early 80's, very primitive. And even then there were hackers that used to take down a BBS. Some things just never change.
  • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

    Wow! this takes me back to when I ran a BBS back around 1987. Started on a old CP/M based NEC 8000, complete with a massive 10 MB! Winchester. (yes that was 10 megabytes, costing many hundreds of pounds).. later then 'migrated' to a BBC Micro with solidisk/hard drive so I could use a Prestel based system and finally humble PC. Things certainly have changed over the past twenty plus years!
  • Raise your hand if you used Procomm to dialin!!!

    WOW! this takes me back.
    The rush of power as you realized that you were connecting to a person perhaps on the other side of the USA.
  • Oh for the days...

    of looking at AcID ANSI art, slaying the dragon and winning the... barmaid, and going to sleep while your computer downloaded a huge file overnight.
    D. W. Bierbaum
    • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

      @D. W. Bierbaum
      ... and waking up the next morning with your head on your keyboard...
  • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

    I ran a Cnet BBS on an Amiga 2000 with three 16 meg HDs, 7 phonelines (14.4 modems ) and a 6 pack CD player I had to write a program for so it would work with the BBS ( full of shareware CDs ). I had more fun than I had a right too and could afford to have 8 phonelines that I sure couldn't afford now.
  • The Fun and Knowledge Communicator

    I do recall the many BBS's prior to the Internet and HTML, remember the Red Dragon written by Seth Robinson. We got files off the satellite dish and fed them to our users, the first shareware! I still have the "Major BBS" software...do you recall...
  • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

    13 yrs old running the Color64 BBS while "phreakers" would upload 0-0 day warez for access to the Elite Section. The Power!
  • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

    I ran Greg Pfountz's BBS on a C-64 with 1581's and an SFD-1001.... Back then on a 2400 BPS dedicated modem. I should start it up again. My parents were even fielding calls when it was down for maintenance.
    • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

      The Prism BBS with my alias Dr. Who. Lehigh Valley PA 18002. I knew The Shire, Equinox and Force very well.
    • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

      @wtincorp Sweet! I still have my 300, 1200, and 2400 baud modems from my c64. I remmeber being so amazed at the 2400 baud, how quickly it drew characters on the screen... oh, and the ansi animations!
  • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

    Those were the days indeed. I have fond memories of my time in FidoNet in the early 1990s.

    I searched Google recently for my old FidoNet style email address (f#.n#.z#.fidonet.org) and found 80 or so hits.
  • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

    Yep, sure bring back a lot of memories....and waking up my roommate in college a lot when I first started my BBS and hadn't hacked into the s-registers to turn the sound off. And of course, then I remember when Practical Peripherals offered BBS sysops a half price 14.4 modem when they first came out if you would put on your login page you were supported by Practical Peripherals. I think it was only about $150 with the discount!!! LOL We also had the monthly user meetings, which were a lot of fun.

    Definitely lots of good memories of those days. :)
  • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

    I ran tbbs, PC-Board, and Wildcat! boards back in the day -- back when "high-speed" meant 9600 bps, until the mind boggling 19.2k USRobotics units landed.

    Some very high quality dialog was going on in the message boards, but it's nice to _not_ have the text-only, low bandwidth, no hyperlinking limitations any longer.
  • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

    I ran RBBS back in the day. It was an open source BBS system that ran in interpreted BASIC on a blistering 9600 baud modem. Made several modifications especially when a new transfer protocol came out. Remember Xmodem, Ymodem, and ZModem?
  • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

    There is an excellent DVD set entitled "BBS: The Documentary" by Jason Scott that includes many fascinating personal accounts from those who were part of the BBS era.
    • RE: When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

      @agbags The video linked at the top is from that documentary, which is why I included it. :-)
      Scott Raymond