Bulletin Board Systems: The Origins of the Internet

Explaining Bulletin Board Systems

Back in the 1980s, there wasn’t a way to connect to one another via a computer.

Talking about your interests required meeting up in person. In 1979, 2 engineers came up with an idea to connect locals with the same interests.

The idea? BBS (bulletin board systems).

BBS was the first online community and a precursor to IRC. Since dial-up modems are slow. Most things were text. BBS was no different.

Why did BBS start?

BBS was created by Randy Suess and Ward Christensen.

Originally called CBBS (computerized bulletin board system). The idea was taken from the bulletin board used at the local library. BBS was meant to share newsletters with a local Chicago computer group. The prototype took 2 weeks to build.

How did BBS work?

In the beginning, everyone was local. Since they used a phone line and modem, calling long distance would be expensive. Before mobile phones made long-distance free, the phone company charged for calling outside of your area code. The charge was based on the time of the call and the distance. Business hours and longer distances were more expensive.

The BBS had a number you would call using your computer. The BBS computer would answer. Then the messages were printed out using a printer. There weren’t private messages and file transfers in the original version.

Once computers had screens, printing wasn’t necessary. You could use menus to see and respond to the topics interesting to you. After screens, then private messages and file transfers were made available.

How did BBS spread?

The creators of BBS wrote an article for BYTE magazine. The original software was shared with BYTE magazine issue. From this issue, BBSes started to spread.

From this original software, Other people started to create their own versions of the BBS software for their needs.

Who ran the BBSes?

Each BBS was run by a person called a sysop (system operator). Sysops had the BBS on a computer in their house or place of business. Their modem line had its own phone number.

The Sysops for known BBS’es were celebrities to the people who used them. They were able to ban people or remove the content as they saw fit since they owned the hardware everything was stored on. In today’s terms, they would be called a moderator or webmaster.

How much did BBS cost?

In the beginning, BBS cost the user the amount of their phone bill and their computer. For the Sysop, it cost a lot of time and their computer.

As the tech expanded, people started charging to make their BBS better. The charge paid for their time and their hardware. Seems like this became more important once fame set in for certain BBSes.

Did BBS do anything else?

BBS communities started online gaming. All of the games were text-based. People would play role-playing games or journey-based games. Another common game was chess (without pictures).

What do I need to remember?

  • BBS was the framework leading to the current day internet.

  • BBS was the first online community.

  • Everything was done over a phone line making phone calls.

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