ASCII by Jason Scott

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Disruptive History —

I figured I’d bring this out in the open, because it’s an interesting facet of being a place where history is being told. And not just history, of course, but very specific history that a small number of people care about. It’s one thing to want “the truth” in history, and to want to know that all effort has been made to ensure accuracy. It’s another when almost nothing is truly affected by that history being different than who gets to say a few words at a party, or side-mouth mention a factoid during a speech. But this history, specifically the history of the Bulletin Board System, is the stuff I’ve been spending time on, so it’s something I have to look into.

If you define a BBS as a computer hooked to a phone line that automatically answers, and which lets you connect via modem to that computer and leave messages others can then read, then the first BBS is canonically known to be Ward Christensen and Randy Suess’ CBBS (Computerized Bulletin Board System). Work was started on it on January 16, 1978, with Ward doing software and Randy doing hardware. They had a working prototype on February 1st, but it’s generally said the first day they were up for the public is February 16, 1978. Good enough, with just a little bit of fuzzy slop.

It was not the first online messaging base. Ward in fact was on Arpanet and that’s where he got the idea for a BBS/Answering Machine that became CBBS.

It was not the first computer hooked to a modem. There were modems well before this time.

It was not the first online community sharing things to a general audience. PLATO has a lot of events and situations happen well before Ward starts working at IBM and gets access to neat equipment. PLATO, in fact, has this pretty amazing history and a bunch of people are working to get that history down.

The BBS Documentary gives some credit and mention to PLATO and Community Memory, because otherwise I would have gotten flak for making it seem the whole BBS thing just popped out of nowhere (which it obviously didn’t).

So there we are, a relatively set-in-stone story.

Until, occasionally, someone comes and tries to upset the apple cart. Here’s how that goes.

I got this “update” to the BBS List a few days ago:

Since the timespan on your drop-down only starts at 1978, it’s difficult to select the year 1972.  The timespan of the original “The Dude’s Home BBS” was 1972 to 1998 (“The Dude’s Home” was a precursor to the “CBB” in 1972 in Chicago, IL).  I believe that the term “BBS” was originally coined by Mark Malewski (The Dude) in 1975 (while Ward Christensen had used the term “CBB” for his project in 1978).  The original “The Dude’s Home” BBS was first brought online by Richard Kopera (in 1972) in Blue Island IL (also an early member of CACHE), and the first “Dude’s Home BBS” node was later moved to Midlothian IL in 1975 and that same year a second node was later brought back online in Blue Island IL.  I believe it was the first, and the longest running “BBS” in history, that ran between 1972 and 1998 (26 years). “The Dude’s Home” was a precursor to the “CBB” project created by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess in 1978. “The Dude’s Home BBS” (Node 1) was moved from Blue Island IL to Midlothian IL in 1975. The first (and original) Dude’s Home BBS phone number (in 1972) was 312-597-2903 (located in Blue Island IL), and that same BBS phone line existed between 1972 to 1998 (although it switched from Node 1 to Node 2 in 1975). I don’t recall the exact phone number of the Dude’s Home BBS Midlothian node 1 (in 1975), I do remember that it was a 312-389-xxxx number (Midlothian IL number). There were 8 “BBS” nodes total (The Dude’s Home BBS) over the years (located in Blue Island IL, Midlothian IL, Lemont IL, and Tempe AZ) between 1972 to 1998. Several of the nodes were all running concurrently.  I believe Richard Kopera and “The Dude” (Mark Malewski) were the original sysops of The Dude’s Home BBS and in 1987 I believe “King Diamond” (Joe Christ?) was a Co-Sysop of “The Dude’s Home BBS” (between 1987-1992) after the Midlothian IL BBS node was relocated to Lemont IL in 1986. I believe “The Dude’s Home” BBS (Mark Malewski & Richard Kopera) were the very first “BBS” to be selling “e-commerce” on their “BBS” with the online sale of U.S. Robotics Modems (Skokie, IL) on their “The Dude’s Home BBS” between 1975 to 1998. Richard Kopera was working closely with Paul Collard, (the lead engineer and founder of U.S. Robotics, Inc.) to test early prototype modems designed by Paul Collard between 1974-1975, just prior to the “U.S. Robotics, Inc.” forming in Skokie, IL in 1976. “

So this is interesting, because it breaks the whole history. In this version of events, Ward and Randy are not just latecomers to the game, but potentially inspired by a fellow computer club member. CBBS is not the name of the BBS they eventually come up with – they use CBB.

Let’s address the “CBB” claim, for example. That one appears to be, on objective observation, crap. Here’s some text from the printouts in May of 1978.  They clearly call it CBBS.  Here are photos of diskettes, one from 1979, calling it CBBS.  It’s just not true.

As additional fun, there’s quite obvious evidence that a little battle is brewing on Wikipedia about this history. Here’s the result of one set of edits, where one of Wikipedia’s Fine Editors went ahead and undid all of the declarations, claiming the information is false. In a previous edit, a bunch of citations were removed because all of the links, going to 3dmalls.net, were dead.

The registration info for 3dmalls.net is the same person who mailed me, who made these edits on Wikipedia that are undone. In other words, they cited their own page they wrote to bolster claims made nowhere else on the internet.

Registrant:
Mark Malewski
13111 Red Drive
Lemont, Illinois 60439
United States
Registered through: Domains Priced Right
Domain Name: 3DMALLS.NET
Created on: 23-Oct-08
Expires on: 23-Oct-11
Last Updated on: 04-Dec-08

You see the problem here.  Thankfully for me, it doesn’t happen all that often.

During the BBS Documentary interview phase, I had someone claim to be someone else, quite insistently and convincingly, on the phone. If I hadn’t 1. Already interviewed the real person, 2. Personally known them since 1984, there might have been a bit of a hullaballo. As it was, I didn’t call back again to arrange an interview, of which he was quite willing to fly to my state to be interviewed.  Another small dodged (rubber) bullet.

All I can do, I think, is be grateful that there isn’t money involved, some sort of monetary value assigned to gaining the “prize”. At that point, things get pretty terrible and ironically, the stakes are high enough that you can’t just put aside the claims and see what shakes out over time.

Here the stakes are low, very low indeed. Still, I wish there weren’t people still playing for them.


Categorised as: computer history | documentary

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4 Comments

  1. Ingvar says:

    The best “first” I’ve managed to find for “dial in to computer, read and leave messages” is for PLANET/FORUM, sometime in the mid-70s. PLANET/FORUM was the inspiration for QZ-KOM, but I’ve only been able to discover the year of starting operations (1978)., that in and of itself does not trump the Ward/Christensen claim.

  2. Chris says:

    Back in the early 90′s, there was a fairly large and popular BBS that made claims on their splash screen to be the “oldest” and/or “longest running” BBS here in Rhode Island. He was wrong on both counts, of course (oldest: Nybblink, longest running at that time: Syslink), but if you tell a lie enough times, most people will eventually accept it as the truth. To be charitable, I won’t name the system here, but twenty years later it still annoys me.

  3. Jason Scott says:

    The more disturbing one is telling yourself the inaccuracy until you believe it yourself. And then you suddenly hit up against irrefutable proof of otherwise, and it hurts.

  4. Earle Martin says:

    How, erm, peculiar.

    On an unrelated note, Jason, I just read your Hacker Perspective in this quarter’s 2600. It was a good piece, thank you.