A Handy Guide To The Humble BBS

Some of us who’ve been online since the early days fondly remember the web of yore — with its flashing banners, wildly distracting backgrounds, and automatic side-scrolling text. But there was a time before the worldwide web and the Internet as we recognize it today, and the way of communicating in this before-time was through Bulletin Board Systems, or BBS. There are still some who can cite this deep magic today, and this page is perhaps the definitive guide to this style of retrocomputing.

This how-to is managed by [Blake.Patterson] who is using a wide variety of antique machines and some modern hardware in order to access the BBSes still in service. He notes in this guide that it’s possible to use telnet and a modern computer to access them, but using something like an Amiga or Atari will give you the full experience. There are some tools that convert the telephone modem signals from that original hardware to something that modern networking equipment can understand, and while the experience might be slightly faster as a result, it does seem to preserve the nostalgia factor quite well.

For those looking for more specific guides, we’ve featured [Blake]’s work a few times in the past, once with an antique Epson PX-8 laptop and again with a modern ESP8266. It doesn’t take much computing power to get connected to these old services, so grab whatever you can and start BBSing!

30 thoughts on “A Handy Guide To The Humble BBS

  1. “the BBSes still in service”? Oh that’s interesting! Now I wish I hadn’t thrown my 56K dialup modems away then. Oh wait – I might still have a US Robotics one in my parts bin…. But then I got rid of my copper land-line only about a year ago…

  2. Ah, I see. The classic hacker culture. BBSes, mailboxes and a movie called ‘War Games’..

    BBSes also existed far away from the landlines..
    Packet-Radio on CB radio or the amateur bands.
    Free and independent.

    Then, there were the X.25 networks, spawned across the world, connected via telephone lines, fibre amd satellites. And ISDN.

    They made online services like CompuServe, AOL, Q-Link, the Videotex family (Prestel, BTX/Datex-J, Minitel) possible on a global scale, among other things.

    Here, something new (old) to learn for you:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Packet_switching#Packet-switched_networks

  3. I just had an idea… what about a BBS running on an 8266 in AP mode that’s usable via web browser for anyone within wifi range? It’s a bit of a mashup between geocaching, wardriving, those usb sticks mounted in walls, and old fashioned BBSes. This could be a fun little weekend project! Of course it has probably already been done, but without looking it up, I can pretend I’m the first to have the idea. :)

  4. Okay…I ran ST/R (short for Star Trek/Robotech) BBS on a Commodore 64 with FOUR 1541 drives (8 through 11 [and yes, I places SPST switches on the cases for individual address assignments]). My mother would always wonder why the phone would ring and there was an annoying electronic screaming through the line. Good times, and great memories and so many floppies to organize.
    I was not in competition with Pirate 80 systems (a few miles from where I was and where I have hardcopy of many of the .TXT mags and files there). Those times were great. Tradewars, File directories to naviate, messaging the SYSOP at off times throughout the day… Oh those were the days.

      1. Payment in installment? This used to be very popular in my country (Germany), at least.

        We rarely use(d) credit cards over here, you now.
        Payment in installment was our alternative.

        We used mail order companies a lot (Quelle, Otto, Neckerman etc).
        They also had computers, games and peripheral hardware in their catalog.

        Quelle was also kind of a pioneer and provided home shopping via BTX, an old online service of the Videotex family.

        Quelle started its online shop in the late 80s I think, when C64s were still around.
        Maybe it was a bit later, but surely before 1992.

        Anyway, you guys likely used CompuServe, PlayNet etc. at some point. Q-Link was made for Commodore 64/128 users, also.

        Our BTX service at the time was very demanding by comparison, the primitive home computers of the time were barely capable of it. Didn’t meet the specifications:

        – 480×250 pixels
        – 32 colours (on screen) from 4096

        The usual connection speed was 1200 Baud down, 75 Baud up (user input).

        Even higher end acoustic couplers could do that speed, so no telephone modem was needed.

        Because of these specs, decoder modules for home computers had external video output. Especially for the C64 there existed some ugly big decoder boxes that attached to user port. Sure, there were pure software decoders, too. But they were not really supported, if not illegal to use.

        Even the original IBM VGA on PC from 1987 didn’t suffice initially .
        Standard VGA, mode 12h, in 640×480 had merely 16 colors (colors on screen).

        It wasn’t until third-party SVGA cards arrived (Trident 8900, Paradise PVGA2A, ET3000, OAK OTI-67 etc) that this became possible.

        They could display a minimum of 640×400 pels in 256c with the baseline VRAM (256KB, empty sockets for 512KB expansion were sometimes soldered in).

        Either via Super VGA (specific programming needed) or via VESA VBE 1.x (mode 100h). The VESA BIOS had to be installed from disk as a TSR, however. It wasn’t in the ROM chip.

        Anyway, I just wanted to share this. Hope you don’t mind.

  5. Five or ten years ago I converted a remote scientific data station from audio to digital data transfer. All that chopping up and too many digital conversions along the way was rendering the signal unreadable at the receiving end. When I got the digital system set up, suddenly the idea of transferring data by making beeping noises into the telephone seemed absolutely ridiculous.

    1. Um, these noises are just certain frequencies transformed into sound waves.

      It’s technically not necessary to use audio signals (AFSK, as used by an acoustic coupler),
      the frequencies can also be generated directly (FSK).

      On shortwave, for example, both voice and computer signals are very narrow. Which is both efficient and annoying. Because it’s speed limiting (300 Baud Packet-Radio).

      I’m thinking of RTTY, AMTOR/SITOR, NAVTEX, PACTOR, Packet-Radio, SSTV, WEFAX etc.

      With am usual bandwidth of ~2,7 KHz (SSB), all these radio signals can easily be converted into the audible range.

  6. I ran a HPAV site back in the day. It ran on an Amiga 500. I actually still have the old BBS software, etc. backed up on my desktop(cause a gigabyte was expensive AF back then but is pennies now). I’ve been going through all the old text files and such. I considered starting it up again using UAE and maybe some form of ssh tunnel.

  7. I ran The Prairie BBS with 4 phone lines in cental Illinois for many years using TBBS by Phil Becker. It was one of the best and most efficient software packages. There is a forum (can’t remember the link) where you can download TBBS (The Bread Board System), TDBS (The Data Base System) and other modules plus instructions so you can set it up and make it accessable via the internet.

  8. Oh I remember setting up maximus as I loved the script language. First it was just a 2400 baud but then I got a 14.4, the 28.8k making me the fastest in my town and first 2 node in my town. Used a 386, 2 megs ram and qdesk to multi task. Still have the hard drive lol 80mg. I had 3 cds online for data and that 200 bux a month phone bill calling around to get the newest stuff.

    Tradewars what the big hit back then….

  9. The year that 2400 baud modems became affordable, I was able to get one for my C64. Unfortunately the C64 serial i/o routines were too slow for to do 2400bps reliably. I modified a version of CCGMS terminal software to use my own custom bit-banged RS232 driver code, and it worked. 2400bps was amazing at that time – 240 entire bytes per second, lol.

  10. Ah, the Good Old Days… I used to run The Napalm Enema and KFBBS as Colonel Sanders using WWIV and TAG. Met a lot of interesting people, learned a lot about communications. I even set up a BBS for my school as an Independent Study project. My boards were in several nets, including FidoNet at one time, which was awkward as it involved using a front-end shell to manage it. My group of friends ended up setting up their own BBS’s, too.

    The ad-hoc network was a good alternative to CompuServe and later services like Prodigy and AOL.

  11. NYC 1992, Keyboard Palace, Suzy’s Cream cheese, Cathode Cathedral. Started out at 1200 baud, baby! Sometimes around 1995 I ran Oafie’s Den and networked with other GremCit and whatever it’s precursor was down the Citadel86 line all across the country. We called it OafieNet because my phone called and dropped/picked up all the packages. :) Such good memories.

  12. I ran a BBS in the early 80’s on an Atari 800 with a modified Perstor controller running 2 DOUBLE sided floppy drives. Gave the equivalent of 8 Atari floppies in storage capacity. The main part of the BBS program was running in a 256K RAM disk cobbled up on an Atari RAM module.
    Later upgraded to an IBM XT clone and FIDO BBS. Good times on the Matamoras Monitor BBS

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