ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Printout —

Sometimes, when I’m feeling down or depressed, I cheer myself up the way that most people would: by scanning in 20-year-old dot-matrix printouts, proofreading the resulting textfile for accuracy to the original, and then posting it for the world.

When I was calling BBSes in the early 1980s, I sometimes would print out the stuff I was reading. My IBM PC had an Epson FX-80 dot matrix printer, and it could mostly keep up with whatever was coming off the modem. Looking back, I guess I considered it easier than saving to floppy disk. Maybe there was some other urge, but I can’t believe I thought it was an important historical record. I remember printing out some of my favorite messages from people I admired, so there was definitely a memento aspect about some of it.

(Astoundingly, Epson has gone back and scanned in all the documentation for the printers they used to sell, including the Epson FX-80 I used to own. Guess they’re saving history too.)

So, the upshot of this early-teenage activity is that I have over a ream of printouts of circa 1984-1985 BBS message bases and files. Many of the files I already have on, since I also saved them on the floppy disks I had. In this way, I know many of these files are “saved”; they’re online, mirrored in a dozen places I know of and probably a hundred I don’t.

Dot Matrix technology used a ribbon for printing and set up each letter in a little matrix of dots, hence the name. This means that the letters were really the lowest standard necessary to be legible. It was, really, worse than the typewriter-like printers that came before, but these were cheaper to get and they were, often, faster and smaller. They are also somewhat prone to fading, although a brand-new ribbon produced a printout that 20 years later still looks great.

I should also mention how hysterically loud this printer was, with each line going by like a banshee screaming. If you were running this printer late at night trying not to wake your dad, as I was, the issue was one of striking a balance between need-to-print and getting screamed at about being up at 3am. Therefore, these printouts hold a touch of bittersweetness for me, because they also invoke memories of my dad waking up at 6am, going out to the dining room and finding his eldest son still hunched over the computer, obviously having neither slept nor moved for the last 12 hours. I have a loud voice; my dad’s was even louder, and harsher, criticizing me for not sleeping and drawing the classic groggy parental logical bridges to deeper, darker ruin.

Bittersweet the memories might be, I kept all these printouts and over time, I’ve been scanning them in. OCR technology has gotten very good in the past few years, and a package like Omnipage will go through and nail something like 90-95% accuracy for a lot of these printouts. Occasionally it messes up when getting into particularly number-filled or technical documents, when it will start claiming something made in 1984 was made in 1934 and so on. Since it’s important to me to try and transfer this stuff as accurately as possible, I make sure to do a line-by-line comparison between the original printout and the resulting file, correcting poor character recognition and spacing, but ensuring that all the spelling mistakes, poor grammar and line noise stays in. After all, that’s what happened.

This is slow going and with a bunch of other stuff in my life it’s probablly got the worst effort-to-output ratio of all my projects, but it has definitely been progressing, and there’s a section on with the results of my work so far.

In some cases, these were relatively “large” boards, which meant there were hundreds of people logging on, but others were more likely to have a dozen or two dozen regular users. How many of those were pre-disposed to printing out or keeping record of the activity on the board, I wouldn’t know, but I’m willing to bet very few. So, the only record of these BBSes that might exist are these printouts.

So, if you’ll permit me, a quick tour.

For whatever reason, I was really attracted to a family of BBSes in the 612 area code, which meant (mostly) Minneapolis-based BBSes, and while I didn’t really know where Minneapolis (or Minnesota) was, I assumed it was a magical place because of all the cool messages people left. I was fascinated enough with this that I made a special effort to drive hundreds of miles during a trip to record these people for the BBS Documentary: Here’s some photos from that. For the record, it was quite worth it and these guys were as cool as I’d hoped.

Among the boards out there were the Safehouse BBS and the 1985 BBS. The Safehouse was a mastery of self-promotion – I even have the system specs up as a top 100 file. For an example of how the conversations might go, here’s a collection from the debate den. Initially, it seems a little hacked-together and simplistic, unless you take into consideration the whole context and start to string together the indirect information. For example, these 26 messages span the period from August 3, 1984 to September 10, 1984; five weeks of time, basically a new post every day and a half. And this was considered quite fine, with people responding to stuff posted weeks and weeks previously as if it’d just happened. Compare this to a site like where a subject will have its main burst of interest and posting within 8 hours, and include massive paragraphs of text, with people jumping into meta-discussion (“this is a stupid topic; people are falling into the same traps”) often in the first 20 minutes.

The 1985 is one of those perfect stories I like to tell. Started by Sinbad Sailor, it had 1985 as the last four digits of the number. It came up on January 1, 1985 and went down on December 31, 1985; it only lived an exact year, the year iit was named after, a fleeting party whose invitations were clear and which went down as expected, as it had always said it would. Here’s some general postings from the 1985 BBS and here’s a “random” sub-board which encouraged just being random.

I talk about the BBS Sherwood Forest II way too much, but it’s my all-time favorite BBS, because you really felt like you were running with the wolf pack and being in the know about stuff, which to a 14 year old is high currency indeed. Here’s some phone-phreak-related postings from Sherwood Forest II, which includes some informative postings by BIOC Agent 003, the crown jewel of Sherwood Forest II.

Another indirect advantage of this printing is catching some record, even a fleeting one, of BBSes that were likely to be created, live, and die within a month. It was hard work to keep one going and it was definitely expensive. Since you wanted people to call your new board, you would go to other BBSes and post messages about how great your place was and then sit back and hope beyond hope someone would actually call. Here’s a nice collection from the Utopia BBS (a personal favorite). Note how many times the sysops would not even leave the area code, assuming everyone would be in the same place (312) and there would be no long-distance callers.

Additionally, I even have the fortune of acquiring some rare gems along the way, for example this printout of messages from the Private Sector BBS, which was the “Official 2600 Magazine BBS” and was taken down by authorities a couple months after that printout.

Another gem is even more esoteric; a printout of a conference on Compuserve held in October of 1983 with Steven Wozniak. People (like myself) used to hearing the “good of all the world” type Woz in the modern day, as he happily talks about learning and doing the right thing, will find this conference transcription quite the contrast. Here, the Woz is all business, talking about the state of the market with the newly-released IBM PC jr coming out and the positioning of Apple’s IIe and III models against the Commodore 64. (Woz predicts the Commodore 64’s fading away after a year, but mostly because he believes a new model will subsume it, which was somewhat true). Additionally, he drops pearls of insight and information about the forthcoming Apple Macintosh, and how it will totally change everything. One of the most interesting passages concerns the dance that Wozniak enters into trying to skirt around the cold hard fact that the Macintosh is a billion times less “hackable” than the Apple II:

The Mac, unfortunately, is so perfect that we didn’t leave much room for
hackers to do hardware “for themselves” or “their own way” — we feel there
were no alternatives. The philosophy on software is different — open, access
the hardware at various levels. You won’t have the interesting world WE enjoy
of programming to handle each of five 80-column cards, six printer interface
cards, four dot-matrix printers and a letter-quality printer, four modem
cards, etc. The world of ones and zeroes, registers and adders, instruction
sets and video modes is very dear to many of us. We were forced to learn it
in order to be Apple II pioneers.

What’s vital to me, here, is that these are primary sources; these are examples of what it really was like to be on a BBS at that time, and are the actual words said by actual people who are a part of it. In today’s information-blender world, it’s frustrating to watch someone summarize the entire BBS era along some warped-for-the-current-argument vector. They do it because it’s easy, because who’s going to check up on that? But now, there’s these examples to point to, to go “No, we really didn’t think it was too slow. Yes, we really did talk this way. No, this term ‘open source’ didn’t pop up 20 years ago.” You hold in your hands what happened, when it happened.

I sometimes get side-swiped with one of the few arguments that will infuriate me, piffle about starving people in other lands or having a life or misjudging priorities. I’m pretty straightforward about these folks: I call them “death-dealers”. I call them that because they equate tearing down another project as building up their own. They consider telling someone they did things wrong to be equal to doing it right. At the end of the day they go into the ground and the world is made better by the silencing of their tinny horns.

I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t consider it important; and just glancing over the printouts, I take great satisfaction in bringing them onto the site. It’s rewarding work like few other projects I’ve done. This is what I do. You do what you do.

And there’s a part of me, giggling, that loves to scan these things in, carefully check them, and put them on the site because of the eternal cosmic joke behind it: for a while, people posting on these boards did think they were making the world a better or different place, and the weight of the words was, if not life-changing, at least highly regarded between the people posting and the people reading them. How hilarious, then, would it be for these kids, these teenagers, to know that 20 years hence, someone would labor to carefully transcribe their words, capturing every nuance, and then place it at personal expense up on a world-wide-accessible stage, for later generations to ponder!

If only life was this satisfying, on so many levels, all the time!

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  1. Lazlo Nibble says:

    Conincidence creep raises its ugly head again: my first printer was an FX-80 too. I think it’s still in my closet at home, covered in mouse pee (don’t ask). It was eventually replaced with a NEC PinWriter; its output quality was astounding (24 pins on the print head!) but the thing made the screechy FX-80 seem like “Ambient 1: Music For Airports”.

  2. fuzz says:

    I’m even more impressed that not just do Epson have a manual up for your FX-80, but there’s even a driver for it, all the way up to NT 4.0. Now I wonder where my old dot matrix got to?

  3. Flack says:

    Was the Epson FX-80 really popular or what? Count me as another former owner. And, no matter how loud you say it was, there’s no way it could match the deafening clickety-clack of a daisy wheel printer. For a while we owned both, and let me tell you, if you think the FX-80 would wake your parents, a daisy wheel monstrosity could wake the dead.

    My question for you Jason is, once you’ve scanned in the papers, do you throw them away? I can’t. Even after the papers have been scanned or the old disks have been converted, the memories, stories, and history still remain in the originals. I wish I could let them go, as it sure would be nice to park a vehicle in my garage, but to date I cannot.

  4. Jason Scott says:

    Goodness, I’m a little shocked you would think I’d ever throw anything away, ever, under any circumstance.

    My most recent effort has been to scan and OCR these papers. That only gathers a certain couple of vectors of information, that is, the arrangement and the content of the text. It leaves out a lot about the consistency of the paper, the feel of the dots, the heft of the pile. Not stuff that easily transfers now and not stuff that might hold interest to current generations, but later ones will likely have other ways of keeping this.

    It may sound science fiction-y but there could very well be a way to produce holograms or cloned versions of historical stuff in the future. If this is the case, then you would definitely want the original items.

    Either way, there is no benefit, after 20 years, of me intentionally trashing stuff just because my newest approach to transcribing it into another form is somewhat successful. Let life, disaster and entropy do that work.

    I bag these printouts in archival plastic bags with acid-free backing and store them with indications of what they are. Always.