A Faux BBS Gets Software On To Your Vintage Machines

Back in the golden age of modems and phone lines, bulletin board systems, or BBSes, were a great way to find new software from the comfort of your own home. Most have shut down over the past few decades, as the Internet took over as a more flexible method of cat picture software distribution. [equant] was a fan of browsing for warez through a text interface however, so recreated the experience in a way that’s useful today. The result is RetroBridgeBBS.

The software runs on a modern PC, ideally a Linux one that runs Python 3 and has a serial port. Then, you can hook up your old retro computers via serial using a null modem cable. Fire up appropriate terminal software on the retro computer and you’re rewarded with a BBS-like interface. From here, you can search selected online repositories for software, and download what you like. The host PC parses requests from the retro PC over the serial link, and shuffles back the requested files downloaded from the Internet. Currently it’s set up primarily for Macintosh users, with some useful features to avoid downloading StuffIt archives of the wrong version – a perennial frustration in the 90s. Future plans involve expanding the system to suit more platforms.

It’s technically anachronistic, but it feels like a period-correct way to get software onto a vintage computer. It’s also a great way to do so when you’re lacking appropriate floppy hardware, hard disk emulators, or network cards – all of which can be expensive and in short supply. There’s other ways to go about it, too, of course – you can do some nifty things with an ESP8266, don’t you know! Video after the break.

26 thoughts on “A Faux BBS Gets Software On To Your Vintage Machines

    1. I boot strapped xmodem tools onto a handful of DG superminis that I supported in the early 90s. If I remember correctly we first transferred and assembled an ascii to bin utility, then we transferred a xmodem client.

      Fun stuff.

    2. I had a neat trick under DOS. There was a version of uudecode you could send over a serial port and save as a txt file in DOS using the copy command. I think it was uudecode.dbg actually. Then you used it in debug to make a COM file. Then you could send a uuencoded version of something like Telix or other terminal emulator over. Then you have zmodem and can transfer files that way. I might have parts of this a little wrong since it was probably over 20 years ago.

      I’m not sure if the Macintosh ever had something similar.

      1. Yeah I’ve done this recently with LapLink or even MS’s own included InterLink. You’d redirect the DOS prompt over serial (CTTY) and LL or INTERLNK would echo out a tiny bootstrap program into a file which would them run a proper file transfer program. This all relies on DOS already being installed on the target machine

        Macs almost always had LocalTalk built into the system so file sharing was native and just needed the serial (or commonly phonenet) cable

    3. For sure this is a real issue if you’re trying to get a system up and running. I have a weakspot for vintage laptops which often come with harddrives with modem software on them already so in that case it works well. But I use this mostly to browse and download software from internet archives to whatever vintage computer I’m playing with at the time. I don’t know why, but it’s easier and more satisfying for me than jumping through networking hoops, or browsing the web on my computer and dumping every shiny object onto an sd card. Although sometimes both of those approaches are lots of fun too.

      1. “Assylum BBS (New Hampshire, USA, 1993-1996)
        (yes, the spelling mistake is deliberate, and there is a story behind it)”

        You were a teenager and the name of the BBS had ass in it, it that the story?

    1. Mount Prospect BBS 1982-83, 84, then Cleveland Park BBS in DC 84,85,86. Ran on an Ampro Little Board, cp/m with Ward and Randy’s CBBS program. I loved it. Two quad density ds 5.25 floppy drives.

      Moved to Miami in 86 put up cocomut grove bbs and got crickets – nada as they said locally.

  1. Former sysop here – Prairie BBS ( Bloomington/Normal, Il.) running TBBS (The Bread Board System -Phil Becker). I ran it for 12 years providing 4 phone lines running under DOS on a Northgate computer.

    The TBBS software was ported over to run on the internet years ago by fans of it. There is a forum to help set it up if you want to reconnect with your past.

  2. hah i love it. about a year ago i was setting up an old omnibook laptop and wound up copying a bunch of dos games over zmodem… but downloading from a ‘bbs’ would be a much more authentic experience, that’s how i did it back in the day! should probably have set the rs232 to 2400bps too for extra authenticity :)

    but i do kind of cringe at involving python and all that, just to get an inferior bbs. i still have my old WWIV BBS zipped up. in its last stage of life, it was running under dosemu on a linux machine anyways. today i’d use dosbox.

  3. I’ve been developing a terminal program for the Colour Maximite 2 and designing around ESP8266 Wifi “modems.” Most of them can’t handle file transfers or anything beyond casual BBS browsing. The ESP8266 and ESP32 firmware libraries tend to corrupt the data during transfers, either because of insufficient internal buffering or internal libraries that add bogus characters like NUL to the data stream for unexplained reasons. I’m surprised they are able to make it work with Zmodem, as we can barely get Xmodem to work with the ESP’s. If anyone wants to help in this effort, check out my github at https://github.com/frnno967/maxiterm

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