Pre-web: The BBS online community thrived

Dec. 8, 2017
by Mark Ollig

Years before web browsers redefined how the internet is used, many of my generation were going online locally by way of a dialup computer Bulletin Board System or BBS.

In the late 1980s, computer hobbyists (such as this writer) were avidly reading Boardwatch magazine, which contained articles dedicated to BBSs and their human system operators, known as SysOps.

Computer hobbyists were spending many hours (and dollars) installing BBS software and hardware onto their computers to communicate and exchange information with other computers over modems and traditional analog telephone lines.

I began with a text-only interface BBS software program developed by Galacticom, Inc.

It was not a simple “plug and play” process installing and programming BBS software and the additional components and hardware on a computer.

The name of my bulletin board system was WBBS: OnLine!

WBBS (Winsted Bulletin Board System) sounded like a radio or TV station; making it easily remembered – besides, yours truly thought it was pretty cool.

I placed local newspaper ads, wrote an article describing the features of a BBS and how to log in, and created paper flyers advertising WBBS and posted them all around town.

My car’s vanity plates read WBBS, which got a few stares while driving down the road.

ProComm was a telecommunications software terminal program commonly used for accessing a BBS, as were Kermit, PC-Talk, and Qmodem.

Personal computer users began getting the BBS bug and soon were participating in the WBBS online community.

I discovered being a BBS SysOp was keeping me busy.

WBBS user members could send and receive BBS email messages with other members, text-message with each other in real-time in the discussion (chat) rooms, play games, and send and receive software files shared within the BBS community.

Internet address emails were sent and received to WBBS members via a UUCP (Unix-to-Unix Copy) remote connection program through a telecom carrier I knew.

Some hobbyist BBSs had many telephone modem lines, which allowed a larger number of simultaneous users.

WBBS used six telephone lines connected to six modems, so six dialup users, plus your humble SysOp controlling the central computer BBS console, could be online at the same time.

Many of the WBBS members were from the Winsted and Lester Prairie areas, where the telephone number to reach the BBS was a free, local call.

I later updated WBBS with a GUI (Graphical User Interface) for a more visually-friendly, easily-maneuverable point-and-click experience for its members who downloaded the GUI client software.

Regular members of the BBS might stay logged in for hours chatting with others, and some would stop by to play games, check their messages, or just to say “hello” and “what’s new?” to folks in the virtual community’s chat room.

In addition to the enjoyment of being on the BBS, many also discovered the camaraderie taking place in the BBS community’s chat rooms.

In early 1993, I gave a presentation of a BBS during the Winsted Civic and Commerce Association lunch-in, below the American Legion Club in Winsted.

I used my new OmniBook laptop computer and a desktop computer which hosted a BBS program for the demo.

The desktop computer was set up to represent a business BBS, and the laptop as a customer’s home computer.

Each computer connected to a dedicated telephone line, which I installed for the presentation.

While the local business people ate lunch, I explained what a BBS was, and then demonstrated how a person could use their home computer to call a telephone number and connect with another computer operating a BBS software program.

I showed how a BBS menu program could be specifically designed to enhance their business with an online presence for communicating, selling, and providing product and service information to their customers.

This working demonstration must have made a good impression, because I was asked a lot of questions. Many business people also came up to the presentation table to see how I had the computers set up, and to get a closer look at what was displayed on the monitors.

The local business people reacted very favorably to the idea of online consumerism and the benefits it could provide for interacting with customers. Remember, this was nearly 25 years ago.

By the late 1990s, BBS users wanted internet web access.

Some BBSs obtained direct access to the internet by leasing a dedicated 1.54 Mbps T1 facility connection from their local telephone company.

A member could then access the internet through the BBS, which acted as an internet gateway.

BBSs were becoming ISPs (Internet Service Provider), and thus needed to charge its users an internet access fee to pay for the expensive monthly T1 internet connection charges.

Eventually, people began leaving the dial-up BBS world, preferring to traverse internet web content through commercial dial-up computing servers providing internet access.

Popular online servers included CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL (America Online), who charged hourly or monthly rates for online access.

Sadly, many of the local dialup BBSs (including WBBS: OnLine!) shut down and went offline, while others relocated their BBS community to an internet website.

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