ASCII by Jason Scott

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The Syslink Manual —

Here’s a letter sent to me recently:

I’ve been a big fan of for a while now, and I loved your BBS documentary; I am looking forward to seeing GET LAMP and ARCADE when you are finished with them, I know that they’re both going to be great.

I started calling BBSs in the summer of 1983 with my Commodore VIC-20 and 300 baud VICMODEM. One of the very first boards that I became a regular caller to was the Providence, RI SYSLINK (401-272-1138). This was programmed, created, and run by Don Lambert and his company, Software Interphase (I think the entire “company” consisted of just him at the time). I had heard about the much better known Chicago SYSLINK (never called it, though), and I believe that there was another SYSLINK board that was running someplace in Massachusetts at the time, but the Providence “Flagship” SYSLINK was one of the first and most popular BBSs in Rhode Island in the early 80’s, and literally one of a handful in the state when I stumbled across it in 1983.

As a paying member of the board ($25 a year), I was sent a copy of the “SYSLINK User Operations Manual, version 3.0”, which I have scanned into PDF form and attached for your review. I had found this buried in a box of paperwork and other flotsam from my teens and early 20’s. Please note the little slip of paper that someone had taped to the front cover with my User ID, password, and the two Providence access numbers. Pages 1-1 and 1-2 list a brief history of SYSLINK, which you may find interesting. Though not a part of the original manual, I have also included both sides of a SYSLINK promotional flyer that was mailed to me at some point; I’m guessing that Don must have handed these things out at computer shows and meetings, and mailed them to prospective customers.

The contributed PDF of the scanned manual is located here. It’s 4.3 megabytes.

I became aware of SYSLINK during the first year of production on the BBS Documentary, when I was in the process of going to Chicago to interview both Ward Christensen and members of CACHE, the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists’ Exchange. This was the user’s group meeting where Christensen and Suess met and came up with the idea of the BBS, so there was important history there.

Besides interviewing Ward, I also attended a CACHE meeting and set up in an adjacent classroom, where I interviewed a number of the members attending that month’s meeting. Among them was George Matyaszek, who had run the Chicago SYSLINK BBS for 19 years, from 1981 to 2000, ending its excellent run only a couple years previously. I’m sure it must have seemed like a real nice wrap-up to have a documentary filmmaker show up to get Chicago SYSLINK’s story.

I interviewed George and another compatriot, Peter Hru, for about 45 minutes. (All the interviews on that day were short so I could get as many different folks as possible.) It says something that George and Peter show up quite a few times in the final documentary; his speaking style cut through the concepts deftly and got right to the point.

I also remember a particularly nice gesture at the end of the interview. After shaking my hand, George handed me $50. I demurred, but he insisted. I don’t recall the exact words he said, but they were along the lines of appreciation that someone was making the effort to tell the BBS story, and that this was going to cost me an awful lot of money. He was right, of course, and I did appreciate the cash.

CACHE, it appears, has disbanded in the years hence. The website has gone dark, and I assume the second-oldest computer user’s group has finally reached the end of its lifecycle. I’m sad but not surprised; I still recall the shock I felt when the Boston Computer Society folded up in 1996, and that was ten years before CACHE did.

Leafing through the SYSLINK manual, you get a nice sense of the commercial side of BBSes, and what issues were pertinent to Sysops of the day (the day being 1986). Mention is made of the SYSLINK “Bash”, attended by six people (and a wild success, according to the manual). These numbers-of-achievement are peppered throughout Syslink’s listed history, with people buying one of the first 50 modems in Rhode Island, or only 40 BBSes running in Rhode Island in 1986. I can’t back up too many of these numbers, or dispute them.

Notably, the manual insists that the SYSLINK software is not for a BBS but for an ITE, or Information Transfer Exchange, a location where “information is transferred to, from and through”. This term does not catch on, but in the time this manual is written, the field is wide open to call things whatever you want. There’s also an excellent listing of possible uses for an ITE, ranging from small businesses and schools through to radio stations and “personal use”. The product defines itself, and then provides its own relevancy.

And it’s definitely notable that this is a product, with well-laid-out manual and extensive documentation; there are very few commercial BBS products in 1986, and certainly not that many in multiple revisions and being sold. PC-BOARD was relatively new, TBBS was in effect, and a number of other products dotted the landscape, but the vast majority are freeware or shareware.

I appreciate being sent these artifacts; people who consider themselves students of this era always work better from primary materials, and there’s a lot of good stuff in this one.

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  1. Shii says:

    I wish I could hold a party with five other people and make it a wild success. There’d probably need to be a whole lot of alcohol involved.

  2. Roger McMillian says:

    I was saddened to hear that Chicago Syslink had shut down. For quite a few years, I served as assistant sysop for the BBS and a member od CACHE. Alas the advent of the internet slowly closed several BBS’s. i know a few people who still run BBS software on their PC’s but mainly as a substitute for services like “GoToMyPC” and such. Of George Maytaszek, I can say that he was a great Sysop and remains one of my best friends.

  3. Chris Clegg says:

    I was probably one of the six people, and, no, there was no alcohol. It was, however, a pretty exciting time. There was a sense that the BBS was a pioneering idea that would change the world. It did. So many things evolved from that concept of using computers to connect people together. Web sites, internet forums, social networking sites are all are refinements of that fundamental idea. I was the author and Sysop of ICOMM, one of the first BBS’ to appear in RI after Don Lambert’s SYSLINK.

  4. Sarge says:

    Don Lambert of SYSLINK brought a (TRS-80 Model II?) to a “NorthEastern 99ers” TI-99/4(A) user group at the LeFoyer Club in Pawtucket, RI. He demonstrated running a BBS and how terminals worked. While it was odd seeing another company’s system at the TI Users Group meeting, it was fascinating to see how this technology worked. I used to call SYSLINK but only rarely – it was an in-state toll call and very expensive, especially at 300 baud.

  5. Don Lambert says:

    Hi, What a delight to read about myself and something I did back in early 1981/82. I had the crude beginnings of an internet (not real time) with email and “filemail”. Syslink was run on a TRS-80 model III (which I recently deep-sixed due to divorce). I developed the extensive add-ons to the Microsoft basic language to support the BBS and multiple users. Had several Syslink BBS’s running including Chicago, Massachusetts, and Virginia. The idea would have taken off if I had developed it on an IBM PC, but the TRS-80 was on its way out. Any comments, please send to my email at Thank you! Don Lambert