ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

A Carrier Detected for Three Decades —

On January 16, 1978, Ward Christensen started his Monday trying to dig himself out of a snowstorm. Unable to successfully do so to commute out to his job as an IBM sales engineer, he went back inside and talked to his friend Randy Suess, a fellow member of the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyist Exchange. Ward had been on an Arpanet-based mailing list where it had been postulated that these new modems and a kit computer could be combined to make some sort of computer answering machine. Nobody, however, had sat down and actually done it. Ward and Randy cooked up an idea to make one of these computer answering machines/bulletin boards as a project. Having previously come up with the XMODEM protocol for transferring binary files dependably over modems, Ward was just the guy to get cracking on it, and Randy, a tech and chip geek, was just the the guy to build the hardware it’d run on. Ward started on the code and Randy the hardware, and within a few days they had a rough prototype. By two weeks, it was working enough to let people test it, and 312-545-8086 got you the first Computerized Bulletin Board System, CBBS.

As Ward mentioned in his interview when I visited him in 2002, testing continued for some time, and since they didn’t think anyone would believe they got it running in two weeks, they made it four, and ever since then the official birthday/anniversary of the first Bulletin Board System is February 16th, 1978.

30 years ago today.

Bear in mind that in 1978 there weren’t many auto-answering modems; this was a time when Ward had a second trash can in his office, to put on top of the acoustic coupler modem so that ambient room noise wouldn’t corrupt the data. The solution to auto-answering was this: a ring detect circuit built by Randy would reset the machine, making it restart and run the CBBS program, which would then pick up the phone. Time from machine reset to blasting a carrier down the line: two rings.

In a stroke of luck, the first BBS was attached to a line printer so that Ward could do bug-fixing and see how the BBS was running. These thermal paper rolls, records of the first few months of the first BBS, have been entrusted to my care for now and I’ve been transcribing them. You can actually browse these scrolls now. I have a bunch to finish. I think I should make them a priority…

CBBS as a board went down in the 1990s. A version of it is online as a webforum. Ward started running his own BBS, the Ward Board, for a number of years; it has also gone down but he was kind enough to give me some samples of the last years of that BBS.

Both men have been “done” with the whole BBS thing for many years; they haven’t talked in a long time. But Randy was kind enough to sit for an interview and Ward has been really gracious over the years in getting me artifacts and discussing it and helping people with their questions about it. There’s something surreal about the co-creator of the BBS posting on Slashdot but that’s what happens when we go from amoeba to alpha centauri in a couple generations.

Their story and the story of what happened to their creation is why I picked up my camera and started booking flights, and for that I thank them very much. How lucky we are that both these gentlemen still walk the earth and have seen what has happened to their side project, so long ago.

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  1. Chris Barts says:

    With that phone number, it’s interesting that it predates the introduction of the Intel 8086 by a matter of months. (The chip was apparently introduced in June of that year.)

  2. Rob says:

    Is it just me, or does anyone else find it funny that the second or third message on the first scroll looks like some kind of proto-spam from ComputerLand?

  3. CBBS was one of the boards I visited nearly every day for over a decade. The community that evolved there was like nothing before or since. Man, I can’t tell you what my technoweenie career would have been like had it not been for CBBS and The Ward Board. Very different, that’s for sure.