The BBS Corner - A Brief History of BBS Systems!

The following is a brief history of Bulletin Board Systems. This is based upon a Wikipedia Article on the subject. More information will be added as time permits.

Background


A Bulletin Board System, or BBS, is a computer system running software that allows users to connect and log in to the system using a terminal program. Once logged in, a user can perform functions such as uploading and downloading software and data, reading news and bulletins, and exchanging messages with other users, either through electronic mail or in public message boards. Many BBSes also offer on-line games, in which users can compete with each other, and BBSes with multiple phone lines often provide chat rooms, allowing users to interact with each other.

Originally BBSes were accessed only over a phone line using an analog dial-up modem, but by the early 1990s BBSes were allowing connection by other means, such as via a Telnet, packet switched network, or packet radio connection.

The term "Bulletin Board System" itself is a reference to the traditional cork-and-pin bulletin board often found in entrances of supermarkets, schools, libraries or other public areas where people can post messages, advertisements, or community news.

During their heyday from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s, most BBSes were run as a hobby free of charge by the system operator (or "SysOp"), while other BBSes charged their users a subscription fee for access, or were operated by a business as a means of supporting their customers. Bulletin Board Systems were in many ways a precursor to the modern form of the World Wide Web and other aspects of the Internet.

Early BBSes were often a local phenomenon, as one had to dial into a BBS with a phone line and would have to pay additional long distance charges for a BBS out of the local calling area. Thus, many users of a given BBS usually lived in the same area, and activities such as BBS Meets or Get Togethers, where everyone from the board would gather and meet face to face, were common.

As the use of the Internet became more widespread in the mid to late 1990s, traditional BBSes rapidly faded in popularity. Today, Internet forums occupy much of the same social and technological space as BBSes did, and the term BBS is often used to refer to any online forum or message board.
Ward Christensen and the computer that ran the first public Bulletin Board System, CBBS

BBSing survives only as a niche hobby in most parts of the world. Most BBSes are now accessible over telnet and typically offer free email accounts, FTP services, IRC chat and all of the protocols commonly used on the Internet.

The Beginnings - A Brief History


The first public dial-up Bulletin Board System was developed by Ward Christensen. According to an early interview, while he was snowed in during the Great Blizzard of 1978 in Chicago, Christensen along with fellow hobbyist Randy Suess, began preliminary work on the Computerized Bulletin Board System, or CBBS. CBBS went online on February 16, 1978 in Chicago, Illinois.

With the original 110 and 300 baud modems of the late 1970s, BBSes were particularly slow, but speed improved with the introduction of 1200 bit/s modems in the early 1980s, and this led to a substantial increase in popularity.

Most of the information was displayed using ordinary ASCII text or ANSI art, though some BBSes experimented with higher resolution visual formats such as the innovative but obscure Remote Imaging Protocol. Such use of graphics taxed available channel capacity, which in turn propelled demand for faster modems.

Towards the early 1990s, the BBS industry became so popular that it spawned three monthly magazines, Boardwatch, BBS Magazine, and in Asia and Australia, Chips 'n Bits Magazine which devoted extensive coverage of the software and technology innovations and people behind them, and listings to US and worldwide BBSes. In addition, in the USA, a major monthly magazine, Computer Shopper, carried a list of BBSes along with a brief abstract of each of their offerings.

According to the FidoNet Nodelist, BBSes reached their peak usage around 1996, which was the same period that the World Wide Web suddenly became mainstream. BBSes rapidly declined in popularity thereafter, and were replaced by systems using the Internet for connectivity. Some of the larger commercial BBSes, such as ExecPC BBS, became actual Internet Service Providers.

The website textfiles.com serves as an archive that documents the history of the BBS. The owner of textfiles.com, Jason Scott, also produced BBS: The Documentary, a DVD film that chronicles the history of the BBS and features interviews with well-known people (mostly from the United States) from the heyday BBS era.

The historical BBS list on textfiles.com contains over 105,000 BBSes that have existed over a span of 20 years in North America alone.

Features of a Classic BBS

A classic BBS had:

  • A computer
  • One or more modems
  • One or more phone lines
  • A BBS software package
  • A sysop - system operator
  • A user community

The BBS software usually provides:

  • Menu Systems
  • One or more message bases
  • File areas
  • Voting Booths
  • Statistics on Message Posters, Top Uploaders / Downloaders
  • Online games (usually single player or only a single active player at a given time)
  • Multi-user chat (only possible on multi-line BBSes)
  • Networked message forums
  • A "yell for sysop" to get the attention of the SysOp if he or she was nearby

Further Information