back to article What did turbonerds do before the internet? 41 years ago, a load of BBS

While large chunks of the US used this year's Snowmageddon to binge on streaming TV or tweet selfies with snowmen, take a moment to remember the Great Blizzard of 1978, which led to the first Bulletin Board Service (BBS) taking to the phone lines 41 years ago. Those brought up with the seemingly endless amount of storage and …

    1. Graham Butler

      Came with a little ringbound, incomprehensible manual as I recall. I had NO idea what I was doing :D

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Join the club :).

        In those days you had to educate yourself, because help was out there but typically *after* you needed it (equivalent to your telco telling you that all their help articles are on their website, including the one detailing how you get online).

        Still, that's how you learn that you cab learn anything if motivated/curious enough. Still holds true.

  1. jockmcthingiemibobb

    I was lucky enough to be in the same town as Europe's then largest BBS (Almac) so yippee for free local calls.

    1. gryphon


      I too was within the Almac local dialling area but also ran my own BBS for a good few years, Sputnik Spitfire. There weren't many people using Spitfire in the UK but it was pretty good. Base software fitted on a 1.2MB disk if I recall correctly.

      Almac were always great and very friendly although if you visited them you'd have to drag Alastair away from his game of Civilisation or whatever was current at the time. :-)

      They were especially good when they started getting the weekly tapes of new software from the US to save the international calls.

      Rather than FidoNet I was on RIME. My sister is still in contact with some of the people she met through RIME all those many years ago. :-)

  2. andy gibson

    Sinclair Spectrum

    I remember going online in the 80s with a Sinclair Spectrum and a 1200/75 modem (VTX5000)

    Aside from Micronet 800 and Prestel there were a few hobbyists running BBSes on BBC Micros and even a Spectrum +3 with external drive.

    Access hours were very limited - usually when the owner had gone to bed. I remember calling one night at 1am, they'd forgot to switch on the kit and the sysop's parents were very irate at getting a call at such an ungodly hour

    1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge

      Re: Sinclair Spectrum

      I used to fix those, along with Prism 1000\Telemod 2, Prism 2000 Made by Thorn\EMI*, we stocked another one that was line powered & came in a sturdy metal case** & the Voyager 7 or 11 series & it's clones***.

      * Smarter looking, same colour as the BEEB & a single known issue, blown voltage regulator, I think one decided to blow the other regulator on its return & only one was declared by be to be BER.

      **The make & name of which escapes me right now at this hour.

      ***Magic Modem (Which I think came first), Kirk's Enterprise (Our OEM's knock off) after my boss tidied up the PCB a lot, the argument being,

      JP "These tracks are too thin, they always break in shipping."

      CaptainK "It's a design feature!"

      JP "Explain!"

      CaptainK "If the mains fuse blows & they replace it with a screw or wrap it in silver foil the tracks will burn out instead".

      They also attended one trade show & neglected to bring any tools with them, so they had to borrow mine.

      The story of one his younger staff members called Felicia, I will save for another time, unless demand warrants it here in the comments.).

      Many a hazy recall of London trade show trips, including hanging out of a taxi window going around Hyde Park Corner chatting up two ladies in a open topped Merc, alas their car went one way & our taxi went another.

      Icon - Happier days.

      1. hairbear62

        Re: Sinclair Spectrum

        Used to work for CaptainK (KK) back in the day. He was definitely on a different planet on a regular basis :-). This was just after he moved to Wales. I remember the trade shows too. Got married one Saturday and travelled to London on the Sunday for a trade show on the Monday morning. The tight git put us both up in a hovel full of drunk brickies with broken door locks and a strong smell of piss in the corridors. What a honeymoon. Don't remember Felicia, unless that is a codename, or maybe it was before my time. I may need a reminder. I was involved in the Enterprise modems mostly. KK insisted on using an RCA1802 4 bit uP. No interrupts, no stack, no timers and clocked internally at around 800KHz (look it up if you want a good laugh). He couldn't be persuaded otherwise. Oh for a 6502 or Z80 variant. Doing a V22/V23/V21 Hayes modem with speed buffering on that pile of crap was still, I think my finest and most frustrating piece of work in over 35 years as a software engineer.

        1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
          Paris Hilton

          Re: Sinclair Spectrum

          That sounds like the PCW Trade Show at Earls Court (Travel up Monday, show ran from Tuesday - Sunday) in 86. Our hotel was pretty basic (Boss found out that on a corporate level we could have had the Dorchester for about a fiver per person more than what he was paying & wasn't happy).

          So we probably possibly met at that event (Quite a bit of beer drunk too over that week as per usual) & there was a joint meal between both companies, where Kaptain K. K**k in a seemingly desperate attempt to impress our side asked Felicia (I think she was from the assembly floor & apparently interested in our trainee tech Graham) how she was enjoying her first trip to London from rural Cinderford.

          "It's crap!"

          KKKk looked stunned & pressed on regardless "Why?"

          Her answer stunned everyone into silence mid conversation\mid chew.

          "I miss my boyfriend between my legs"

          I have a very very vague recall for some reason of her or someone (or the threat of) being put on a train back home the next day

  3. irrelevant

    Ah yes. After getting addicted to BBSs, then the quarterly bill came in, I wrote my own BBS software (for the BBC micro, later to be sold by Pace) so people could call me instead..! It worked, but I very quickly had to get my own phone line(s)! That ran for many years, even after I left home and moved to London for a new job; my dad got quite good at rebooting it when necessary.

  4. JeffyPoooh

    Once upon a time...

    Circa very early 1980s, my dial-up access to the pre-Web Newsgroups stopped working. I tried 'everything', but I was offline for days.

    Finally I tried actually listening-in to the telephone line. "The number you are calling has been changed. ..."

    (For some reason, the terminal emulation software of the early 1980s failed to offer voice recognition.)

    I thus learned to extend my troubleshooting techniques to always include all layers of what would later become formalized as the OSI seven-layer model. The root causes of failures are sometimes simply not visible through the screen and keyboard. Very helpful lesson.

    1. Mike 16

      Re: Once upon a time...

      Be glad you were on that end of the "conversation". A friend was our BOFH when we took delivery of a system from a contractor. It was an (alleged) improvement of a data-collection device, meant to poll a number of remote systems for daily logs. But it just couldn't seem to connect from our office. After a lot of finger pointing and raised voices, my friend thought to clip a "butt set" (lineman's phone) in "monitor" to the line, and heard an exasperated woman "answer" with as close to expletives as a gentlewoman could be expected to use. Apparently the file of numbers to call had a typo for some location, and had been harassing this poor woman with unlimited retries.

      There was a bit of discussion with the contractor about having neither a retry limit nor any log of retries. We did have to wonder how many enemies they had made while testing at their own office, or whether there had in fact been any such testing.

      1. Mark 85

        Re: Once upon a time...

        The lesson I learned was "test early, test often" using the butt-set. Great fun back then and what was learned has helped over the years (like actually looking at code and testing then test again).

        There was a BBS I used that went under and the phone company re-issued the number fairly quickly for some reason to some unsuspecting family. I shudder to think how many calls they got from modems looking for the old BBS.

  5. Valerion


    I remember back in the mid-late 90s I was working for a small provider of Point-Of-Sale systems to a couple of niche industries. We had a requirement from one of our bigger customers to automate the sending of data from his shops to a central system but we had no way of doing it.

    In the end I setup an instance of a BBS on each remote system (forget which one it was now), setup an "end of day" option on the system menu that would zip the data and put it into a specific place, then launch the BBS. Then I wrote a quick VB app to dial into each one and send the keypresses to initiate the download of that file.

    Quite Heath Robinson but worked well!

  6. Martin an gof Silver badge


    I think the thing that stood out for me in this article was the bit about resetting. If I understood correctly, when the telephone rang they performed a "cold boot" on the computer and switched the disc motor on. Within a couple of rings (the PDF says the reset circuit had a 30 second grace period) the system was up and running and would answer the phone.

    Fast booting was a given in the early days - I'll never forget the Boo-Beep of the BBC Micro - but that was a ROM-based system, not floppy-based. You'd be hard pushed to get a system up-and-running within 30 seconds these days. I think even my Raspberry Pis are barely within that time, even booting to the command line.

    All good stuff. I first met a BBS at school. We used occasionally to dial-in to the TTNS (The Times Network for Schools) system and join "discussions" with other school children around the country.

    I'm young enough not to have bought my own first modem until the late 1980s. It was a 2400bps Amstrad thing that came with (IIRC) £30 of M&S vouchers! Initially I used it to remote-in to the Polytechnic's bank of modems connected to their VAX system so that I could do coursework (or just read the Poly's message boards, one of which I used to moderate), but I soon discovered the delights of BBSes, though as I was still living with the parents at the time I had to be very careful not to overburden the phone bill. I actually paid real money for a VT100 terminal emulator to run on my Archimedes :-)


    1. Simon Harris

      Re: Booting

      "You'd be hard pushed to get a system up-and-running within 30 seconds these days."

      Somewhere along the line we seem to have lost the ability to make things that instantly start up.

      My TiVo takes forever from power-on to being usable, and my (not very) 'smart' TV seems to take longer from switching on to showing a picture than my grandma's 1960s Pye black and white valve TV. At least the smart TV doesn't whistle while it warms up!

      1. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: Booting

        You can reduce the boot time of a raspberry pi by dropping things from the OS's autostart system, and it will work somewhat. You can also get shorter boot times on computers with slimmer sets of software. Sadly, that only reduces things to a smaller positive integer number of seconds. Why don't we build a firmware image for raspberry pis whose only purpose is to boot and give whatever capabilities it can in under a second? What do you think we can/should get it to do with that small an image?

        1. Martin an gof Silver badge

          Re: Booting

          There is a whole couple of orders of magnitude difference between switching the power on to an 8-bit micro and it jumping into the 8k or 16k "operating system" permanently memory-mapped in ROM (or, in the case of the BBC Micro, 2x 16k for OS and "Language", and loading probably several hundred megabytes of kernel and services from some kind of storage into RAM. I understand that, but it does make me wonder whether (ignoring ASLR) memory-mapped ROM is even possible these days, and how much difference it could make.

          The Archimeded / RiscPC had a half-way house, of course; 4MB of ROM and then overlays loaded from disc - as and when needed.


        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Booting

          "Why don't we build a firmware image for raspberry pis whose only purpose is to boot and give whatever capabilities it can in under a second?"

          Not sure what it was called, but ASUS used to have something in ROM on some motherboards that could boot some sort of minimal image/browser/something, but I never tried it. ASUSGate maybe?

    2. AustinTX

      Re: Booting

      My assumption is that the modem was left on 24/7, and configured to auto-answer any call. The modem's ONLINE status pin would be used to trigger the computer itself to boot up. Callers would simply need to understand that they needed to wait a bit for the BBS to load and start talking. If that took a long time, one could arrange for the first program run to be a tiny "Hello, please wait a moment while the BBS gets ready" message out the COM port, followed by launching the actual BBS.

  7. Electronics'R'Us
    Thumb Up

    Software tools

    I used the Motorola SPS (as it was then) BBS to get the assembler and linker for the 68HC05 series in the early 90s on a blazingly fast 1200bps modem (it was at work); I had to fill out a questionnaire for their CSIC (customer specified IC) program as the cost of getting the otherwise free tools (a rarity back then). "Describe your perfect microcontroller" - choose various core parameters and peripherals.

    If you have ever wondered where all the different variants of the various 68HCxx microcontrollers came from, this was one reason.

    The part I used (in 1992 as I recall) was a MC68HC805B6, an early flash based part (flash was expensive in them days) which cost (then) over $50 each. I can get far more capable parts today at a tenth or even a hundredth of that. That's progress.

    Oh, the final output of the tool was S Records.

  8. John Doe 6

    Technically... can run a BBS over teh internet, the problem is that nobody really want a text only client (but ASCII-porn is still cool).

    1. druck Silver badge

      Re: Technically...

      You can run one over the internet on Raspberry Pi's, and it's great for those wanting a bit of nostalgia, but...

      ..what gets my goat is a couple of genetic throwbacks insisting on posting to comp.sys.raspberrypi via a Fidonet gateway on a BBS, annoying everyone else by having 90's style flame wars with each other, complete with broken threading, awful non standard quoting and incorrect timestamps - thanks to the ancient BBS software.

    2. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      Not Really Technically... But here be at least One Avid Way to Avoid the Roads to Nowhere

      Do you See and Realise here be an AI Register BBS?

      And ... Sharing Premium Grade Top Secret Information with Supremely IntelAIgent Systems for Running Futures with SMARTR Almighty Driver Employments/Stealthy AI Researched Deployment is some news all can assume and presume to be fake .... until and unless that is easily proved false and the facility and utility be perfectly true. .... and thereby Realised for Presentation ..... :-) or Desperate Manic Cover Up/Crippling Information Embargo ...... which in this day and age of Rampant 0Days and Rabid Viruses in Live Operational Virtual Environments has the Chance of the Latter Totally Destroyed.

      1. Pen-y-gors

        Re: Not Really Technically... But here be at least One Avid Way to Avoid the Roads to Nowhere

        No idea what you're trying to say, but have a +1 for authentic Martian frontier gibberish - a dying skill.

      2. Cliff Thorburn

        Re: Not Really Technically... But here be at least One Avid Way to Avoid the Roads to Nowhere

        How long are ‘D’ Notices valid for?

        1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

          Re: How long are ‘D’ Notices valid for?

          They surely have no validity being discretionary and a self-imposed voluntary censorship?

          "Tis the start of a slippery slope which heads into thoughts of despotism and Type Nero 0Days

          1. Cliff Thorburn

            Re: How long are ‘D’ Notices valid for?

            "Tis the start of a slippery slope which heads into thoughts of despotism and Type Nero 0Days“

            And therein lies the overriding answer, only the implementation of such would be to hide a myriad of devilish deeds, so easily resolved, and avoiding the dire diorama of present woes.

            Still, like many of those innocently and innocuously subjected to expoloitation and experimentation of days past I would prefer to believe were long gone, the show must go on.

      3. Tail Up

        Re: Not Really... to Nowhere

        Not as Prior 2 Presentation as 0ne can imagine, but something that is delivered to The Recipient by ITs own knowledge and intelligence.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Technically...

      ASCII-Porn: First PGP Keys

      1. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

        Re: Technically...

        Actually, that's an interesting idea. Hmmm..


      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Technically...

        those good'ole statics...

  9. haiku

    My first "eureka" moment - understanding the concept of McLuhan's global village - came when posting a question (sitting in South Africa) on CompuServe (in Ohio) and receiving an answer (from Holland) ten minutes later.

    For some or another reason this blew my mind, even though I had used FIDOnet for many a year.

    1. Martin an gof Silver badge

      posting a question (sitting in South Africa) on CompuServe (in Ohio) and receiving an answer (from Holland) ten minutes later.

      I had a similar one. A distant relative of a friend who had recently died contacted me via email. He was in New Zealand, I was in the UK. I happened to be online (dial-up) collecting emails (Demon SMTP) at the time and by checking the headers was able to determine that his message took something like six seconds from him pressing "send" to arriving in my inbox.

      Like you, intellectually I knew that this was possible but the true reality hadn't really hit home until that point.

      So much so that I wrote it up in the next issue of the church magazine which I also produced*. The friend was a very long-standing member of that church so the letter from NZ was relevant "news" anyway, but back then I think I was one of perhaps three people in the church (the others being my mother and the minister) who had any kind of online presence, and the whole six-seconds-half-way-around-the-globe thing caught a few imaginations. In those days Airmail was still a common - if expensive - way to get news delivered "quickly", globally.


      *Computer Concepts Impression, the first three issues by printing stencils on my Epson dot-matrix and running them through the Gestetner, after which we stumped up the cash for a CC Laser Direct laser printer because "it would help me with my degree course" (and avoid printing ink stains on the kitchen table :-)

      The Epson had previously done sterling work printing stencils for my underground school newspaper, though that had been produced using AMX Pagemaker / Stop Press on a BBC Micro

      1. Pen-y-gors

        A distant relative of a friend who had recently died contacted me via email.

        I'm impressed. Do they have fibre and Gmail in the heavenly kingdom now?

        1. doublelayer Silver badge

          "I'm impressed. Do they have fibre and Gmail in the heavenly kingdom now?"

          Is this a joke? The original quote reads "A distant relative of a friend who had recently died contacted me". The person who contacted them is "A distant relative of a friend", and the friend had recently died. The relative was alive at the time.

          1. Martin an gof Silver badge

            I might possibly have punctuated it better, but I think the meaning was clear.

            And Gmail probably belongs in "the other place", though of course this incident happened years before G....e was even a twinkle in someone's eye...


          2. Graham Butler

            I read it the "wrong" way too at first - not unlikely given only downloading mail daily or whatever back in those days. Like receiving a letter from someone who died between posting and delivery.

        2. Chris Fox


          "Do they have fibre and Gmail in the heavenly kingdom now?"

          According to some they do have a lot of cloud-based services.

        3. hammarbtyp

          Gmail in heaven

          Hotmail in hell

      2. Pen-y-gors

        Printing stencils on the dot-matrix - I remember printing some of my first Green Party leaflets that way.

        Then we managed to acquire an electronic stencil cutter. Clever piece of kit - 2 drums. On one you wrapped a document (printed from ZX Spectrum complete with fancy fonts, and even a few photos pasted on), and on the other you put a special stencil. Start her up, and a detector (with a little light) scanned the input image as it span round while a little spark thing burned away on the stencil. Basically like a low-res photo-copier, but just created a master. Lovely smell of ozone or something while it ran. Major technical advance!

        1. Martin an gof Silver badge

          Met one of those stencil photocopiers at a school once. Cheaper per page than the (wet?) photocopier, but you had to take account of the stencil itself (which came in a roll I think, so didn't have to be especially loaded) which added a start-up cost of maybe 20p. Fine for copying 30-odd worksheets for a class, not so good for anything under about 10 copies.

          Pagemaker and Impression did the photos in-line (in the case of Pagemaker we frame-grabbed with a Watford video digitiser from a camera!) and the quality was pretty good for the day. Left an old ribbon in the printer to eliminate the risk of a jam clogging the pins with bits of waxy stencil.

          Took 20 minutes to print an A4 page as pure graphics.


        2. J.G.Harston Silver badge

          A couple of years ago I rediscovered the artwork for the first leaflets I ever did, on my Spectrum and Alphacom printer!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      In 1993 we had a holiday in Hong Kong visiting a friend. The first thing we did was send emails from our friend's terminal to our UK companies in case they wanted to contact us. Up until then we had only used email outwards from the office system that was based on X400. A definite improvement on the expensive brief telex communications of my time in Africa 20 years earlier.

      One evening we could hear our friend's radio in the kitchen with the BBC World service news about an election back in the UK. Walking into the lounge there was a large TV giving a real-time transmission of the same event by BBC satellite. That's when the reality of a shrinking world really hit home.

    3. Graham Butler

      For me, it was sitting in rural Berkshire connected to NASA's photo archive via my Amiga and Mosaic, and downloading a picture of the moon.

  10. frustin still going since 1992 - not many on it now, but it was what facebook is now. But used to have a good 50 users during peak times back in the day, there could only be a maximum of that number.

    1. Groaning Ninny


      Ah, mono. Blast from the past.

      1. frustin


        you used it? my account is 24 years old this year. there's about 15 people that use it fairly frequently still.

  11. IGnatius T Foobar !

    BBS's are on the Internet.

    Some of the better ones allow both telnet/ssh *and* a web interface so you can choose your favorite method of logging in. -- for example.

    And your favorite community BBS is far more tolerable than the ultra-loud gibberishfest of the big socials.

    1. frustin

      Re: BBS's are on the Internet.

      no one on it at the moment.

  12. herman Silver badge

    Facebook BBS

    From Fidonet to Facebook, it is all BBS to me.

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