ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

When the BBS Broke Free —

It’s nearly 20 years since a harbinger of the BBS’s future made itself known. Time for a recap.

I think there’s two levels to discussing something historical: compiling a general overview of an event that may have slipped by and is in need of attention, which is easier in today’s info-soaked world, and then a more in-depth research, which really does need more primary sources, interviews with people involved, and so on. So pardon me while I do the first level of research on this subject.

Throughout the 1980s, BBSes were, on the whole, single or dual-line affairs. Exceptions were definitely abounding, thanks to Tim Stryker’s Galacticomm MajorBBS software/hardware, Diversi-Dials, and similar super-multi-line situations. These multi-lines, however, were ghastly in their expense on the hardware and software side: you needed as many phone lines and modems as simultaneous users (not counting the local sysop who could use the machine) and you often had to have software that charged you something significant. Galacticomm’s MajorBBS could run you in the thousands, Diversi-dial needed a little chunk of change, and so on. In other words, these were the sorts of rare places, often requiring paid subscriptions, that thrived but even at the top of their game could service a few dozen people simultaneously.

I think nothing illustrates this combination of cost and difficulty to breathe the rarefied air of multi-user computing for BBSes as this photo of the Rusty and Edie’s BBS setup, circa late 1980s:

Consider for a moment, if you will, how much computer you’re seeing in this shot. Each of those machines is a fully set up PC compatible, with the attendant costs of memory, hard drive, and internal cards. They are all connected to modems (some of which you can see stacked on top) and all of this collection of hardware are plugged into the masses of power strips along the back. The room was obviously never designed for these computers – it has a regular carpet and those power strips are ad hoc. Consider how much effort was expended to make this system even work, to keep it all running, to make it function, to administer the software. This was a hell of a way to make a buck.

One of the books I’m currently reading is How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines by John H. Leinhard, and one of the interesting ideas put forth in the book is how much invention arises out of an urge; in the case of the book, an urge for speed. We could see what we wanted, some of us could get speed in various ways (horses, skiing) but as the introduction of faster and faster machinery came to the masses, speed became a commodity and the satisfying of that urge. I contend, therefore, that another known urge, powerful whenever it reared its head, is simultaneous multi-user conversation, both online and via telephone technology. In both cases, when it burned, it burned bright, but often at a financial cost relatively few could sustain on either the front or back ends.

The difference between a single-use of a computer and a doubled use is almost infinite. With two people interacting in the same space at the same time, so many more qualities arise out of the experience. There’s a reason basically all the major games invented in the dawn of video games are two-player – computing power couldn’t begin to capture that sense of competition, the knowledge that the other entity there was against you, as smart as you, and was ready to take you on. It was a long, long time before the single-player game that wasn’t a pale echo of this competition became commonplace.

Once you were online and could talk to others directly, you knew in your heart that you got things that way you didn’t get just reading the files and messages the last guy left. A BBS that could claim it had multi-line chat had a pretty strong reason for people to call it.

Like many refrains from 20 years ago, it is either a tired (but true) phrase or a new concept to those who haven’t heard it before, so it’s worth singing: the Internet was not always the Web. The idea of a client sitting with an all-you-can-eat connection and a all-we-can-suck-down approach to data was a early 1990s concept, and took years to truly ramp up into absorbing the vast majority of what people would consider the online experience. Communication and mores had existed for a decade beforehand among the relative hoi polloi of college students, and of course lurked in years previous to that in a miasma of scientists and engineers, cloaked in seriousness but prone to the occasional extensive play and entertainment as needed. The meat had a light coating of sauce, instead of the cooked sugar covered with gravy we now consider the status quo.

The two worlds of Internet and BBS overlapped, but not significantly. Access was of a certain strip and the BBS world was where all the exciting on-the-ground just-a-bunch-of-folks stuff was happening. Certainly people would use the Internet’s available functionality and then disconnect their modems and connect to the local BBSes. It was an odd world to look back on, but it was the case.

So there’s this event that happened in 1989, on the Internet, that laid it all out. The moment the BBS broke free.

It was called the Mars Hotel.

Located at Mississippi State, this 1989 BBS ran in Unix using software that called it PBBS, for Pirate Bulletin Board System. The creation of Ed Luke, this was the dream brought to life – a multi-user BBS system that you could merely telnet into, a connection from anywhere on the Internet, to log into and leave messages, upload and download files, and do what had previously been the province of the dial-up Bulletin Board Systems.

The Mars Hotel pulled away that final restriction for multi-user connections for a BBS. You could see, in the dozens of people on, how fast things would become. A message posted could have other replies almost immediately; instead of the slow burn of a BBS message base with its queue, a flamewar could erupt and engulf a board within a half an hour. It was also, vitally, free; people who might point to the WELL as a predecessor to Mars will also have to admit it was a money-making venture (or at least a monetary membership if you weren’t a journalist or celebrity). Charging for a BBS is (temporarily) weird again, and back then it was usually to be able to handle these enormous back-end costs I spoke of. Mars had very little of that.

Here’s a list of Internet BBSes of 1990, with Mars and its other contemporaries (Quartz at Rutgers, Freenet in Cleveland) running in sizes unfathomable just a couple years earlier.

There is, I am sad to say, such a dearth of information on these places. They are truly, for the moment, lost to time.

Here’s a collection of unix-based software packages, some of them dating quite a ways back, others maintained for many years by people who were not the original creators. PBBS, for example, has gone through several revisions, including to the last incarnation, “Pivot”. A 1994 Linux Journal Article describes this software and the later Eagles’ Nest BBS, a derivative (and improved) version that came about in 1992. This article, by Ray Rocker, is absolutely excellent and takes what I’m talking about into very deep technical details you may want to know about.

But technical details are not stories, they’re not memories and they certainly aren’t interviews. I wish someone had sat down and spoken with some of these people. I was quite busy getting other stories but this one didn’t get in my schedule. It’s an important time, one more people should know about.

And now you know it too.

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  1. Ryan Russell says:

    You’re surely familiar with Metcalfe’s Law?

  2. Chris says:

    Ah, the Cleveland Freenet. I was a frequent user in the early and mid 90’s. Cleveland gave me my first exposure to the ‘World Wide Web’ through the Lynx browser (text only, until I got my hands on a copy of Netscape!)

  3. Doug says:

    As one of the users of the Mars Hotel, I must say that it was an awesome BBS. It was much better than dialup. Its chat functionality became the main focus of it after a while. If I remember right, Ed Luke called the underlying software the Waffle House BBS system. He wrote the initial ideas while eating at Waffle House. Also, it was called the Mars Hotel because it was hosted on the Unix server MSU based its initial Unix box names on gods (Mars, Venus, Ra). It seemed that approximately 50% of the users of the Mars Hotel were related to MSU, but there was a decent contingent of folks from outside of MSU.

  4. marcie says:

    This is a great article… it really brings me back. I was never on the Mars Hotel — I think it was shut down by the time I started BBSing (spring 1992). However, I was one of the original users on Eagle’s Nest BBS (and Auggie BBS, also based on the EBBS software). Eagle’s Nest is still around and has a small core group of users, although it’s largely inactive. The server is located on the Mississippi gulf coast and was down for a month after Katrina; the community has never fully recovered. Many of us still keep in touch via Facebook and other modern Internet mechanisms. Eagle’s Nest BBS was and is one of the defining experiences of my entire life. Thanks for this recognition of Mars Hotel in revolutionizing BBSes.

  5. Andy Connock says:

    i also was a user of The Mars Hotel in 1990/1991. i remember borrowing a VT100 terminal and 1200 baud modem, bringing it home, dialing in and spending hours on it. i also spent time on ISCA BBS (university of Iowa?? can’t remember). great article.

  6. roberto says:

    I used to run a BBS too. I remember the name of the system that made it possible was called “Renegade”. I was surprised to find a description of it on WikiPedia: