ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

When Being Online Was New —

One of my secret weapons, Gene Buckle, was kind enough to sniff out and send along a precious package indeed: a 1990s archive/transfer of a 1981 software and documentation collection of the original BBS Software, CBBS. This is the real deal – writings and code (including source) of the original BBS program, along with a treasure trove of related materials.

The directory which has the .ZIP files of version 3.5 also has a bunch of easy to browse files I yanked out of these archives, along with my descriptions of them. It is not often the case, these days, that I am sent brand new BBS related material that dates to the years 1980 and 1981, but that is all this collection contains.

Much of this, I’m sad to say, won’t open natively in many browsers. It contains a bunch of “non-friendly to today’s browsers” material, and is not always kind enough to stick carriage returns and linefeeds where you might expect them. I find UNIX can handle it well and I was able to open them in Wordpad. Should you be unsure whether to make such a massive effort, I can at least provide some example writing from these works:

“It is my personal opinion that a CBBS which is up 24 hours a day 7 days a week, is many times better than one which is not. This is because if its up always, people don’t have to think about when they may call it. They can just pick up the phone at any time, and call in.”

— Ward Christensen, March 3, 1980

Personally? I think Ward was right on with this opinion.

I have talked about this before and my documentary tries to be clear about this, but be aware that the world of the BBS in the first 3-4 years is an entirely different world from what comes afterward. Even by 1981 and 1982, the introduction of the IBM PC and the availability of 1200 baud modems and press attention means that the “newbies” are starting to flood in. And by flood in, I mean that only a few thousand people at most were ever using BBSe before 1981, and I would speculate that less than a few hundred BBSes were in existence. It was a time when being online and not doing so for a job or contracting assignment was a completely weird, completely out of this world secret activity that you could explain to almost nobody and make sense.

It was a time when you were insane. You would pay thousands of dollars for equipment, then never use it, attaching it to a phone line you paid for and then let other people use your machine. There are no laptops. There is no wireless. You can’t use the machine when others are using it. You are basically donating this thing you made, to strangers. Think of a kit car you paid ten thousand dollars to build, and then you leave it outside with the keys in the car and a cup of gas in it, and people can tool around until they run out, and then you push it back into your driveway for the next guy. Long-time readers of my weblog will already know this, but maybe others don’t. Being online was weird and the software to facilitate being online was black magic to some, or a deep and involved project for others.

Such it was for Ward Christensen, the co-creator of the first BBS and his partner, Randy Suess (not Seuss, by the way), who programmed CBBS (Computerized Bulletin Board System) in 1978, due to some inspiration and a phone call.

In fact, and this is incredible, but this distribution has, buried in it, a September 1978 retelling of that beginning history. This is a mere seven months after it happened:

System History: It was conceived in a phone conversation
between Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, on January 16,
1978. At that time, rough hardware and software require-
ments were established. Randy began working on hardware,
and Ward prototyped the software in MITS 8K BASIC, with
no actual message saving to disk. As Randy got further
with the hardware, programming was done in assembler for
the final version to go online. After buying a license
for CP/M, burning some PROMS (for scroll routine), and so
on, the system went on the air, ONE MONTH from the day it
was conceived. It was totally financed by Ward and Randy
except for memory board contributions from Lloyd Smith.
It was originally thought to be connected to the CACHE
message recorder line as a way to get material for the
“CACHE Register” (newsletter of the Chicago Area Com-
puter Hobbyist’s Exchange) but turned into a more general
message exchange system. Articles or comments appeared
in various publications: June (’78) BYTE’s Bits, July
BYTE editorial, July 17 Computerworld, June Dr. Dobbs
Journal, Nov. BYTE, etc.

That’s as close to as-it-happened as we’re going to get, 29 years later.

Oh, but it gets better.

As Randy explained to me in his BBS Documentary interview, requests for copies of the CBBS software became so intense and numerous that they started charging for the code. The price was $50 for the floppies. (Jim Willing, who I also interviewed and ran CBBS/NW, still had the original floppies and the original envelopes). Well, to tell people about this, Randy posted a message on CBBS explaining the code was for sale. And what do we find here? A 1981-era End User License Agreement (EULA)! Albeit, a little more straight-talking than today’s messes:

The purpose of this form is to make you aware of what
to expect. It is not meant to "scare you off", but to make
sure no one orders it and is dissatisfied because they did
not know what they were getting into.

* The programs are made available on an as-is basis.
* No warranty as to their function or usefullness is
either expressed nor implied.
* The buyer will be notified of major system improvements
and/or programming errors for a period of at least 90 days
following the mailing date of the disk.  The buyer may send
in 2 floppies to receive the latest version of the program,
within that 90 days.
* The ability to implement CBBS is the responsibility of the
buyer, and dependent upon the buyers skill and knowledge
(specifically, in CP/M, and 8080 assembler).  You will have
to read, and comprehend sufficiently to modify, over 6000
lines of assembler code.
* The program authors and sellers are not liable for the
consequences arising from the use of CBBS or the contents of
messages put on the sold systems.
* Purchasing CBBS allows the purchaser to use it on only one
microcomputer system.  Additional copies will be purchased,
or other arrangements made between buyer and seller, for the
use of the programs on any additional systems.  The one copy
IS transferrable to another system, if the original system
ceases CBBS operation.

Also, another nugget in this collection are a bunch of CBBS system numbers, names and information. This is especially neat because these people are truly, by any standard, pioneers; in many cases the only BBS in their city or even county (or state!) who tried this experimental new medium and were rewarded with late nights, high costs and endless headaches. In many cases I had these names but in others I definitely didn’t. Often I’d have a BBS name but not the name of the individual behind it. Thanks to this collection, I have them. I think people who study such things will be intrigued to browse the 1981 Part-Time BBS List, which contains somewhat complicated lists of hours and best times to call. “7PM – 11PM WEEKDAYS AND WHEN I’M AT HOME ON WEEKENDS” has fallen out of favor for operational hours for online destinations.

This is not a brand-new collection, or even the first time it’s been available, but it’s the first time I have it and maybe the first time you’ve heard of it. This sort of magic archive can be found all over the internet, but sometimes you don’t know what you hold in your collection until someone else notices. I have this happen to me all the time.

Let us who care about such things enjoy this glimpse into what the beginning was like, and enjoy how lucky we are that we can do such sightseeing from anywhere in the world, at any time.

Categorised as: computer history

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