A 1986 bulletin board system has brought the old Web back to life in 2017 (2024)

Biz & IT —

It's 2017, but you can still experience the Internet of 1986 thanks to BBS enthusiasts.

Chris Wilkinson -

A 1986 bulletin board system has brought the old Web back to life in 2017 (1)

Limited to an anachronistic 1200 bits per second, it took several moments for the green-phosphor ASCII art to scroll from the bottom to the top of the screen. A login prompt and a blinking cursor invited me to continue deeper:

Enter GUEST for a quick look around.)
Enter your ID#, HANDLE, NEW or ‘?’:_

What would David Lightman think? I found myself at the guarded gates of an online community that had been disconnected for decades. Thiswas mid-2016, but for all intents and purposes, it mightas well have been 1986.

Today, many canbe forgiven for thinking that the digital communications revolution kicked off during the mid-1990s, when there was simply an explosion of media and consumer interest in the World Wide Web. Just a decade earlier, however, the future was now for the hundreds of thousands of users already using home computers to communicate with others over the telephone network. The online culture of the 1980s was defined by the pervasiveness of bulletin board systems (BBS), expensive telephone bills, and the dulcet tones of a 1200 baud connection (or 2400, if you were very lucky). While many Ars readers certainlyrecall bulletin board systems with pixelated reverence, just as many are likelyleft scratching their heads in confusion ("what exactly is a BBS, anyway?").

Further Reading

Modems, wArEz, and ANSI art: Remembering BBS life at 2400bps

It’s a good thing, then, that a dedicated number of vintage computing hobbyists are resurrecting these digital communities that were once thought lost to time. With some bulletin board systems being rebooted from long-forgotten floppy disks and with some still running on original 8-bit hardware, the current efforts of these seasoned sysops (that is, system administrators) providea very literal glimpse into the state of online affairs from more thanthree decades ago. And while services such as the Internet Archive are an excellent resource for studying the growth of the World Wide Web as it's frozen in time, these hobbyists are opening portals todayfor modern users togo places that have beenlong forgotten.

A hybrid hardware affair

Just as the BBS culture invokes fond memories for many of its previous subscribers, its rapid fade into obscurity ensured that an entire generation of Internet users would have no idea that it ever existed. For many (including myself, it turns out), it would be easy to mistake a bulletin board system for some kind of first-generation website without understanding the fundamental differences between the two.

It’s easy to see why this happened. Many authors have already recounted the meteoric rise of the World Wide Web and the demise of protocols that came before it. Needless to say, the Web offered a significant evolution over what came before it.

It was also around this time that hardware obsolescence was becoming a problem. Owners of older 8-bit machines had little reason to maintain their hardware as their userbase migrated to the open pastures of the Web, and the number of bulletin board systems plummeted accordingly. At the dawn of the new millennium, very few systems remained accessible.

Despite the threat of extinction, however, it turns out that some sysops never quite gave up on the BBS.In February of 2016, a sysop with the handle "Skip" brought a BBS called Dura-Europos back online after a hiatus of more than 23 years. The BBS had originally run from October 1986 through to April 1993. As you might imagine, getting it up and running again wasn’t easy.

“I had tried putting it back online several years earlier after I purchased an Apple IIe Platinum from eBay, but it failed,” explains Skip. Naturally, our interview took place within the Dura-Europos bulletin board system.

“The main reason I failed to get it online several years ago is that I was not aware of the Raspberry Pi and TCPser, those were the two missing ingredients.”

Further Reading

10 Raspberry Pi creations that show how amazing the tiny PC can be

Before Telnet and the Internet took over, the only way to connect to a bulletin board was by dialing the correct phone number. The telephone network carried the connection just like a phone call, and the modems on each end of the line would modulate and demodulate the signal for their respective computers. (No Internet required!)

While this approachis still possible in 2017, it comes with some caveats. VoIP services are almost entirely out of the question, as the digital compression used doesn’t allow computer signals (or Fax) to reliably travel from point to point. It’s worth noting that very slow speeds, around 300bps or less, are more likely to work over VoIP. There are also very few systems out there that are still connected directly to POTS (plain old telephone system), so even if you did have access to a real copper phone line and were willing to pay the call costs, there’s not much hope of finding a BBS out in the wild.

Want to see for yourself?

For Windows users, this author recommends using PuTTY to connect to bulletin board systems that have migrated to the Telnet protocol. Mac users can use the inbuilt Terminal, while Linux users have several options available. If youjust want a quick look around, however, you can also use the Telnet client through a Web browser athttp://sfhqbbs.org/telnet-dura.php.

If you are using vintage hardware, the process for connecting to bulletin boards is outside the scope of this article (but it is certainly possible and wholeheartedly recommended).

Dura-Europos can be found at: dura-bbs.net, using port 6359.

As Skip soon found out, TCPser solves all of these problems by emulating a standard Hayes modem. On one side, it sends and receives data at the correct specifications over a standard serial connection to your preferred vintage computer, just as a real modem would have done. On the other side, it sends and transmits the same data out to the Internet (hence "TCPser"). A similar setup on the other side of the connection completes the route—however, the client has the luxury of using a standard Telnet connection on modern hardware instead of TCPser if they so choose.

For the interested client in 2017, it’s simply a matter of "dialing" the BBS using a domain name and port number instead of a phone number in their preferred terminal software. Most software will accept any string of characters, not just numbers. For those that don’t, TCPser can also map any string of numbers to a particular domain name (much like a bookmark in a Web browser) to get around this limitation.

So today, instead of using a phone number to connect to Dura-Europos as was the case originally, auser types: dura-bbs.net:6359.

A 1986 bulletin board system has brought the old Web back to life in 2017 (2)

While TCPser can be run on almost any modern computer, the Raspberry Pi is a low-cost alternative that sits neatly between a vintage computer and the Internet, either over Wi-Fi or ethernet. That was just part of the problem solved for Skip.

"I had a complete set of 3.5-inch backup disks I made before taking it down. Actually two sets; I was a believer in backing things up… I used a 3.5-inch drive to restore the disks to the CFFA3000,” he says.

The CFFA3000 is a modern peripheral for Apple ][ computers that adds mass storage using flash media and can be used to replace floppy disks and hard disks. For Skip, it’s a viable alternative to the original 32mb hard drive he had with his original setup and those3.5-inch diskettes. Not only is modern flash storage infinitely cheaper and more accessible than the correct vintage hard drives, the I/O is also a lot faster despite the board still being limited to 4800bps.

Further Reading

After 23 years, the Apple II gets another OS update

Still, much of the hardware is legitimately vintage despite these modern luxuries. “The Apple //e is the only hardware the GBBS Pro software runs on, and it's an excuse to use my Apple //e Platinum," Skip says. "It has two Super Serial Cards, an AE Transwarp accelerator, AE TimeMaster, and a CFFA 3000 compact flash drive.”

The Transwarp card boosts the Apple //e’s 65C02 processor from 1mhz to 3.6mhz, adding 256kb of RAM as well. This further increases the bulletin board’s I/O speeds, especially when users are loading games.

The TimeMaster card adds a battery-backed real-time clock to Apple ][ systems and helps with the ordering and record-keeping of posts on the bulletin board by adding time stamps. These cards were a relatively common sight in Apple ][ systems, leading to an in-built RTC on the Apple IIgs.

With the correct software loaded into the flash storage and TCPser running on the Pi, Dura-Europos started receiving calls. Skip was ready to party like it was1993 all over again.

A 1986 bulletin board system has brought the old Web back to life in 2017 (2024)


What happened to bulletin board systems? ›

In the 2000s, most traditional BBS systems migrated to the Internet using Telnet or SSH protocols. As of September 2022, between 900 and 1000 are thought to be active via the Internet – fewer than 30 of these being of the traditional "dial-up" (modem) variety.

How did the bulletin board system work? ›

bulletin-board system (BBS), computerized system used to exchange public messages or files. A BBS was typically reached by using a dial-up modem. Most were dedicated to a special interest, which was often an extremely narrow topic. Any user could “post” messages (so that they appear on the site for all to read).

When did Internet bulletin boards start? ›

The first BBS was developed by Ward Christensen during snow storm in Chicago and went online in February 1978. Users could connect to the system by using a modem and a phone line. At the time, modems ran at 100 or 300 baud (1 baud = 1 bit per second) which severely limited the speed of the system.

What was the bulletin board used for? ›

A bulletin board (pinboard, pin board, noticeboard, or notice board in British English) is a surface intended for the posting of public messages, for example, to advertise items wanted or for sale, announce events, or provide information.

How effective are bulletin boards? ›

Conventional bulletin boards play a crucial role in delivering vital information, streamlining communication, and saving time. These invaluable tools effectively communicate details about peer activities, upcoming events, and various opportunities within classrooms or offices.

Do dial-up bulletin boards still exist? ›

Usually, only one person could call and use the BBS at a time (although some multiline BBSes existed). Today, because dial-up phone lines are scarce, and we have the internet, most BBSes utilize the Telnet protocol for connections (although some dial-up BBSes still exist).

What are the uses of bulletin board system? ›

A bulletin board system (BBS) is a computer or an application dedicated to the sharing or exchange of messages or other files on a network. Originally an electronic version of the type of bulletin board found on the wall in many kitchens and work places, the BBS was used to post simple messages between users.

What is bulletin board advantages and disadvantages? ›

Advantages are that boards build interest and motivate students, while disadvantages include potential distraction and clutter. The document provides ideas for board content and materials to create useful and engaging instructional tools.

Why is bulletin board important? ›

Bulletin boards serve multiple purposes. They can convey a variety of information from meeting announcements and parent news to curriculum overviews and displays of student work. They can also make learning visible.

What is a bulletin board on the Internet? ›

A bulletin board system (BBS) is a computer network that allows users to communicate with each other electronically, and share data.

When did the Internet start? ›

ARPANET and the Defense Data Network officially changed to the TCP/IP standard on January 1, 1983, hence the birth of the Internet. All networks could now be connected by a universal language.

How does a bulletin board work? ›

Also known as a pinboard or noticeboard, a bulletin board is a surface intended for displaying notices that give information about something. They enable users to send and receive messages of common interest. They are often made of cork which facilitates easier addition and removal of messages.

What are the 4 general purposes of bulletin board? ›

Bulletin boards are typically used in four different ways - decorative, display, informative, and interactive. They each have distinct functions and require different levels of planning and effort to set up.

When was bulletin board system most popular? ›

The dial-up bulletin board system (BBS). You see, we didn't always have the ability to obtain always-available physical connections to a server. During the 1980s and 1990s, one of the most common ways that average people connected “online” was to use a dial-up BBS.

What are the functions of bulletin board? ›

The Bulletin Board has two main functions; to record public notices and to act as an internal messaging facility where a message can be sent to specified analysts or groups only.

What is an alternative to a bulletin board for office? ›

Use foam core board to make a bulletin board. Create a small board using just one foam core board, or arrange as many as you want to make a larger size. You can find affordable foam core board at the Dollar Store! Attach your boards to the wall using command strips.

What is the difference between BBS and Internet? ›

The BBS communications, while generally slower than the Internet, do not require an Internet connection. In order to access a BBS, a computer and modem are used to dial a telephone number to establish a connection with the BBS hosting computer.

What is the difference between BBS and email? ›

Bulletin Board System (BBS) - What is the difference between BBS and email? As opposed to email, the feature set of bulletin board systems was more comprehensive. They had a lot more features than just email-type communications, such games, chat, classified advertisem*nts, blog content, and more.

What are the disadvantages of electronic bulletin board? ›

Disadvantage: It eliminates valuable, non-verbal communication, and the writer does not receive instant feedback. The appropriate use of memos, reports, bulletins and newsletters Communication is very important in workplaces. Businesses and offices can't survive and succeed without any good forms of communication.


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