The Modem World

In The Beginning . . .

Ever since I got started in computing in 1981, I was certainly aware of telecommunication services such as bulletin board systems (called "BBS's" or "boards"), commercial time sharing services (Compuserve, The Source, etc.) and even this mysterious thing called "Usenet". And of course, a modem on my very own personal computer would be really handy at more crowded computer labs at 3 a.m., just dial into the system from the comfort of the dorm!

However, modems at the time were expensive and slow (remember 110 and 300 baud, anyone?), so I never had any personal experience with one until mid-1985. I was at a meeting of the Santa Barbara Apple Users Group, in a computer store at the Loreto Plaza. At that night's meeting, representatives were demoing a terminal program called "Ascii Express". We called two or three boards that evening (if I remember correctly, they had names like "Citadel" and "Noah's Ark"). Seemed like something I'd like to get involved with...if I could afford a modem.

In Fall of 1985, a friend had a NEC 8201A (one of the early laptops, with a tiny, 8 x 32 character screen). It had a built in modem as well. I helped him set it up so that it could dial-in to the UCSB Computer Science VAX. I even wrote a termcap entry for it. After fooling around with the VAX for awhile, I dug out a list of local BBS's (courtesy of the SBAUG). We were able to log on to several local boards, download text files and print them out, either onto a local dot-matrix printer, or, by capturing the files into the 8201A's memory and uploading them to the VAX, on the Computer Science line printer.

I visited my friend (and his modem setup) about once a week, until we went off in different directions and I didn't see him so often. This effectively kept me away from BBS's for most of 1986.

Return to the Scene

Around February 1987, I got back into the SB BBS scene when I bought my own modem (an Avatex 1200 for about $150) and connected it to my TI 99/4A computer. This setup wasn't the best (the 99/4A's terminal software would only operate at 300 baud, and sometime I had to whistle into the phone in order to get the modem to connect properly). But it did enable my long awaited return to calling BBS's.

The original Citadel had discontinued operations in Summer 1986, but several new boards had sprung up to take its place. (Many, if not all of the boards in Santa Barbara back then are described in the essay I wrote for the Santa Barbara BBS Nostalgia Page back in 1995. However most of the goings-on described at that site took place after I left Santa Barbara in 1987. I supplied them with a lot of the content from 1987).

Southern California...hundreds and hundreds of BBS's...

I returned to the L.A. area in June 1987, and replaced the TI 99/4A setup with a new Amiga 1000 computer. Although phone costs were high, I did attempt to call one or two Santa Barbara boards after that (Bowhead Whale, mostly). But I also wanted to get into the Southern California BBS scene as well...

I remember a few boards out in the Inland Empire area: Vaxholm.....are a few names that come to mind. There was even a Diversi-Dial (a multiuser BBS consisting of an Apple with up to seven modem cards in it) out in San Bernardino named "Twig Tree", but it was a long distance call, so I didn't get involved with it.

It as also about this time I signed up with an online service calle PeopleLink ("Plink"). Plink was attractive to me at the time, because it was inexpensive, and you could pre-pay with a check, rather than worry about running up a credit card by using too much online time. Also it had a a pretty good Amiga file section (the AmigaZone, which is now a web based service). Occasionally I'd even get into an online chat or two...Plink went out of business sometime around mid-1989, if I recall correctly.

In September 1987 I moved to West Los Angeles and started calling boards out there. I started with a few FIDO-net and RBBS boards (one was called "Microsource", I think"). I even became a remote sysop of one or two boards for a while.

World War IV breaks out!!!

WWIV was a popular BBS system in parts of Los Angeles, particularly the South Bay. (names of wwiv boards) Around 1988 or so, "WWIVnet" was developed, allowing WWIV boards across the country to be linked together. Some sysops even developed ways to connect WWIV to other networks, such as Fidonet or Usenet. Since the source code was readily available, (I recall a WWIV mutation called "Epic" that allowed multiple users to sign on and even chat to each other).

Most WWIV sysops were much younger than FIDO-net or RBBS-net sysops, and it often showed. In various parts of the country (including Southern California), "modem gangs" of kids would do things like crash boards, upload viruses, and make prank phone calls.

Around late 1991, I quit calling most WWIV's because of all of the garbage. There were a few exceptions, though. "Soapbox" was a WWIV-based board in Long Beach that catered to 18 and up only. (No, it wasn't that kind of "adult" board...just a place where one could go have a reasonably serious debate without having to put up with the "cool warez" kids and their antics.

Soapbox also had monthly user meets, usually at a pizza parlor in Long Beach or Lakewood. (Other boards did too, but I'd generally be 10 years older tham most people there. Soapbox had mostly older users (40+, I was about 22 a the time), so it was a refreshing change. (We could have beer with our pizza as well!) I went just about every month until about August 1992, when I got distracted by a new job and other pursuits.

More "big boards"--Genie and Delphi

I became a member of Genie (a commercial service run by General Electric) probably around Fall 1988. This was the service where one typed in three "H's" to log on, right? I kept my Genie account until late 1993, but I had quit using it much since 1992, favoring Delphi because of its better selection of downloads.

I subscribed to Delphi in late 1990. Along with the usual file downloads, bulletin boards and chat rooms, it had some powerful features, such as access to Dialog databases (which would have been much more expensive if I had to get them directly through Dialog), and starting around late 1992, direct telnet access through the Internet. Of course back then, Gopher was king, and the World Wide Web was still a text-only collection of academic papers. I kept Delphi until late 1995, since I had obtained Internet access by then.

Internet and Usenet

Until 1994-1995, "real" Internet access (defined as access to e-mail, ftp, telnet and similar services plus Usenet newsgroups) was hard for most average users to get. When I was at UCSB (1983-1987), Usenet was only available on the "Research VAX" (for faculty and special projects only), and off-campus e-mail, or even interdepartmental e-mail, was a convoluted exercise in finding out the "bang paths" required by uucp. Things were a bit better at UCLA (1987-1990); BITNET was available then, making inter-campus mail much easier. Still no Internet or Usenet access (Internet was strictly limited to special research projects until late 1989), but BITNET did allow limited file transfer. In late 1989, I discovered the UCLA Computer Club, which had one machine with limited Usenet and Internet access.

There were also lists (such as Nixpub and Pdial) of public access BBS's that had some limited Usenet content, but they tended to be all long-distance calls, or so it seemed. Yuck.

Occasionally one could find a university campus dial-in number that had open telnet access. Eventually the campus computing centers would get wise, and start requiring passwords on the dial-ins, though. I did have an account on the Cleveland Free-Net, and a couple of other campus- based systems; these could be easily accessed via local campus dial-ins. (or via telnetting from Delphi, when that service started allowing access from the Internet)

Things started to improve, at least in terms of local Usenet (not Internet) access, around early 1993. I moved out to the San Fernando Valley and started using a system called "Quake" ( It had a pretty decent selection of usenet newsgroups, but it was a pay system.

About a month later I discovered a free Usenet BBS called "Pro-Palmtree" (part of a network of Apple-II based boards with limited Usenet and e-mail access) and started using that.

There was another San Fernando Valley based board named "", which I started using in late 1993. It was a Fidonet board with Usenet newsgroups, and it was best handled with an off-line reader. This system also requested occasional donations from time to time.

OK. So far, up to around April 1995, I have Usenet (and in some cases Internet) access from the following systems

In early 1995, people were starting to talk more and more about the "World Wide Web". Graphical browsers such as Mosaic, and later, Netscape, started becoming real popular. To work, these browsers would require a mysterious something called a "TCP/IP" on both the user's computer and the system being dialed into; the simple character based dial-ups were slowly becoming a thing of the past.

While reading about the Internet, Mosaic, etc. in Boardwatch magazine (which now probably should be called Internetwatch, but it isn't) I vaguely remembered that UCLA had a Macintosh computer running Mosaic, tucked away somewhere. So, around February 1995, I rode down to UCLA from Van Nuys, and spent a few weekends surfing the Net. There wasn't all that much out there, mostly academic and research stuff and a few student pages.

Eventually, I knew I had to have my own setup. I went to the computer store and bought "Internet-In-A-Box" or something similar. It featured Internet access through CERFnet--at about $50/hour. Yikes. I tried to ration my time, but I knew I would need something more economical.

In March 1995 I got an account with Primenet (now Frontier Globalcenter or something like that), and kept it until mid-2000, when I moved all my pages to another server. Currently I get most of my net access through the Road Runner cable modem service, so soon dialup through Primenet may be a distant memory.

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