(1) 80s Computers, Modems and the BBS

The late 70s and early 80s was a cool time to be a kid, our days punctuated with Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, parachute pants, ninjas and moonwalking; breakdancing was just around the corner. In 1981, my mom signed me up for a summer class on another neat, new thing: the Apple II Personal Computer. I was immediately transfixed.

During these early years, we lived in St. Joseph, Missouri, notable for the Pony Express, Jesse James’ house and a giant ball of string. Walter Cronkite and Marshall Mathers were both born there. The Pony Express provided a pivotal service for its short existence by delivering mail to the westward-expanding US. With the advent of the telegraph, it went bankrupt after just over a year.

The BBS

As the computer community grew, people began adding modems and creating “Bulletin Board Systems” whereby other computers equipped with modems could connect and exchange basic data, usually just text. Early modems all worked via the user’s telephone line, initially connected via couplers that cradled the physical phone similar to suction cups.

Old-School 80s Modem

The modem would convert the computer’s binary data into sounds that the receiving modem would then convert back. Initially transferring at 300bps, bits per-second, a short-story might take a few minutes before being fully readable. If someone picked up another phone on the line, it would interrupt the connection and cause a garbled mess for that portion of the transfer.

“Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.” -George Washington

By the mid-80s, 600bps and then 1200bps emerged, though at prices prohibitive for most consumers. This changed with the release of Novation’s Apple Cat II, a 300bps modem that, when connected to another Apple Cat II, could transfer at 1200bps. It was akin to the Boba Fett action figure; everyone wanted one and if you were “in the scene” you had to have one.

Novation Apple Cat II

There were a few basic communities that comprised the BBS “underground scene” at this point, with a fair bit of overlap across them: Hackers, Phreakers, Pirates and Pyros. Outwardly, many BBSs would have a public board that discussed D&D, electronics, The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and more with a hidden underground section accessible only to those that received an invitation via referral. Given the cost of making long-distance calls, communities tended to be local with more limited regional or national reach. Only high-level contributors had access to boards outside their region.

The overlap of radio and computer enthusiasts may best be summarized by “Captain Crunch”, a Pirate radio operator that became a central figure in the phreaking scene. He gained his moniker after discovering that a toy whistle from Cap’n Crunch cereal was able to emit the magical 2600 hertz tone that allowed its whistler to take control of a phone “trunk” and make calls with it by emitting other tones to simulate a phone operator. The devices used to generate these requisite tones were referred to as Blue, Black and Red boxes based on their tone range.

The Apple Cat II could also emulate these tones, as well as operate as a “War dialer” (program to scan a phone range looking for other computers), brute-force tester (hack for long-distance provider codes), voice simulator and a variety of other phreaking and hacking tools. It could also play custom sounds, like a fart noise, over the phone while you talked with friends, a trait particularly fun for us thirteen and fourteen-year-olds.

The Pirates consisted of crackers and distributors. Crackers were the people that managed to “crack” whatever copy-protection a company used to prevent free, unpaid distribution of its software, typically games. Distributors were BBSs that hosted those cracked copies. It was virtually identical to the terminology later employed in the internet-based “warez” scene.

BBS “Culture”

There was a decidedly counter-cultural angle to the community mixed with a counter-counter-cultural attitude. The Vietnam war was still raw, “First Blood” came out in 1982, anger at politicians reigned but respect for those that served was ever-present. The magazine, “Soldier of Fortune” was regularly referenced alongside the explosive recipes offered by the Anarchist’s Cookbook or its offshoot homegrown articles.

There were those that promoted anarchy alongside the occult and occasional conspiracy theory along with a minor dash of home-made drugs like smoking banana peels or inhaling nitrous from a can of whipped cream (don’t try either). While BBSs were largely local, some rose to national fame, as did the groups that created and supported them. A distro group from the west coast, named after the band “Frankie Goes to Hollywood” achieved a special level of fame as one of the larger distributors of cracked games.

What I most remember about the group may be a figment of narrative indulgence. A couple members, facing legal issues due to a distro partner in the mid-west, supposedly procured anonymous plane tickets to said destination and beat up the person(s) responsible for their predicament. Likely fictional lore, it’s still hysterical to imagine a group of computer nerds, named after a somewhat effeminate 80s band, committing mob-like violence; it’s also an apt descriptor for the tone of the scene; a soup of hormones, deviance, and awkward adjustment to a rapidly changing world.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Most of the folks in this scene were college-aged or older though a handful of early-teens like me existed on the periphery. We tended to be socially awkward and somewhat athletically-challenged. We weren’t ones to write detailed guides on how to take down a mainframe yet we all yearned to be “on the inside”. Like everyone else, we sought community.

Looking back, especially with the knowledge of where we are today, a few things seem notable. First, there was a mythical revere for the military, with steadfast rules against ideas like “hacking the Pentagon”, while much of the scene spoke ill of the police and establishment. Second, while most of the kids my age would never engage in a fight in real-life, they frequently acted tough under the veil of anonymity a BBS provided. Lastly, while violence was rare (some kid set off a pipe bomb in an empty school), how-to information, especially for pyrotechnics, was both ubiquitous and popular.

“Three can keep a secret if two are dead.” -Benjamin Franklin

Moving to the Mainstream

As computers began expanding to schools and more homes, their capabilities improved, new models were introduced and eventually Bulletin Boards that had been supported by chains of floppy drives were upgraded to use fancy, new 5MB or 10MB “hard” drives.

Apple abandoned it’s enthusiast II line in favor of the “Macintosh” and brands using Intel chips filled the gap. Given the cost, I didn’t immediately make the transition and instead threw myself into Speech and Debate. By the time I bought one of the new 286-based machines, the community had changed dramatically. Graphics had advanced and the entry-point “Operating System” had replaced an intimidating text-based DOS with the user friendly Graphical User Interface (GUI) now known as Windows.

Windows 3.1

Soon Duke Nukem would arrive and take the mantle from Castle Wolfenstein for the first-person shooter genre. The video game industry’s market cap ranged from 20 billion to 40 billion US dollars through the 80s but most of that was from arcade games. Computer games accounted for only 3 billion while the new Atari 2600 console peaked at 10 billion in the early 80s and dropped dramatically for the rest of the decade. BBSs based games like the Proving Grounds, a D&D styled adventure, were statistically insignificant compared to the rest of the industry.

Productivity applications like Word Perfect and Lotus would soon change how offices prepared documents and maintained operational data. Offices built internal Local Area Networks (LANs) that later got “wired to the internet” and eventually email would become a thing.

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Humanity, technology and culture. How it started, how it’s going.

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