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


Chris Wilkinson

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

Today, many can be 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 certainly recall bulletin board systems with pixelated reverence, just as many are likely left scratching their heads in confusion (“what exactly is a BBS, anyway?”). 

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) provide a very literal glimpse into the state of online affairs from more than three 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 today for modern users to go places that have been long 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.”

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 approach is 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.

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, a user types: dura-bbs.net:6359.

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Enlarge / We came home with an Apple II Plus recently and obviously missed its true calling—BBS resurrection.
Sean Gallagher

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 those 3.5-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.

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 was 1993 all over again.

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