ASCII by Jason Scott

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Tom Jennings, Renaissance Man —

The documentary has made me do an awful lot of research, not just on hardware and events, but on people as well. Along the way I’ve met and researched a lot of interesting people, but even better yet, I’ve researched people I thought were interesting and found that, in fact, they’re even more interesting and deep than I could have imagined. A perfect example is Tom Jennings.

For myself (and probably many others), he’s “The Fidonet Guy”, the fellow who created a BBS program called Fido that included a feature of sending along messages to other connected Fidos, enabling them to pass messages and e-mail between themselves. Sure, you say, Arpanet and all that, but unlike Arpanet, Jennings’ program just required a modem and a PC and a phone line, and suddenly you had a personal node on the network, right there. This was the “ah hah” that brought many more people in to keep this dream going, folks who didn’t have the opportunity of working on DARPA research projects or cradled in the hands of an academic institution. This was something you could pull down, crank around it, and (after some effort) be onto a functioning, real network within a very short time.

A large group of folks circled around Tom when he started working on Fido, taking the fidonet network and making it more scalable and robust, improving the “fidonet protocol” and, even cooler, writing third-party modules that would allow you to bootstrap a ton of other BBS programs into the Fidonet network as well. Suddenly you didn’t even need to be running the original Fido program and you could get on there, like everyone else. Then came Echomail and the IFNA and, well… this is why an entire episode of my documentary is dedicated to Fidonet.

But here’s the thing… by the time Tom comes out with Fido and Fidonet in 1984, he’s already a solid veteran of the computing industry. He’d worked at Ocean Research Equipment. He did engineering for Bose. He did the preliminary BIOS work for what eventually becomes the Phoenix BIOS. A little bit of Tom is in a lot of home computers.

He slaves away at Fidonet for a good number of years before finally drifting away from it in the early 1990s. But where for most people the story would slow down (or end), Tom’s actually speeds up. He founds a skaters’ rights group called “Shred of Dignity”. He becomes Wired Magazine’s first webmaster. He throws his heart and soul into creating a ground-breaking ISP called The Little Garden. And oh yes, he founds a Queer/Punk zine called HOMOCORE.

Not enough for you, you say. Well, besides his ongoing work with the up2us software package, Tom is also the force behind World Power Systems, his personal artistic and creative entity that he discusses and displays his artwork and research on. Here he coincides with work I am doing, as he has done a lot of effort to keep track of old Character systems. It’s not just ASCII and EBCDIC, after all. This interest of his in old text has also led to his assistance with rescuing some RTTY art from the middle of the 20th century. In fact, he has a whole host of projects and historical research projects he’s been kind enough to share with us.

When interviewing Tom, I’d have been hard pressed to put his age above 30. His energy and dedication shows in everything he’s done, and like many renaissance men, he’s capable of being both charming and intimidating depending on what he speaks of. Talents like this walk through our lives and the lives of many, affecting them profoundly in ways we never completely grasp. Personally, I think it’s important to recognize them before they’re gone.

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