We Are Makers Of The Modern Web
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My first crack at the internet

By: Mike McKinnon
| Category: Entrepreneurship, Websites
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Do you know what a BBS is?  If you are 40 or older and were called a nerd in high school there is a good chance you do.  Do you know what a DOOR GAME is? Or what ANSI Art is?  Let’s get some of these acronyms out of the way so we can establish a baseline of understanding mmmkay?

BBS: Bulletin Board System.  A computer (or computers) running special software that allowed users to dial them DIRECTLY and connect to them.  The BBS software was basically a single computer internet, full of games, message boards, or other things (file downloads mostly) that the owner of that computer thought important enough to share with the masses.

DOOR GAME: Door games were just basic games (usually text based) that you could play on a BBS.  These games were usually multi-player and allowed some form of interaction either in real time or when the other player(s) logged on.   The name “DOOR” in BBS terms simply meant accessing an external application through the BBS.  Walking through a door to a game.  My favourite door game of all time, Usurper can still be found here: https://www.usurper.info/

ANSI Art: A low graphical, low budget, low memory, low power ART FORM used before we had nice HD monitors and Windows 95.  ANSI was how you drew blocky weird little designs and had them render on computers that had terrible graphic cards and monitors.  Being able to actually create ANSI art was akin to being an amazing bomber (that is a spray paint artist you square!)

Google Image Search “ANSI ART Examples” and you will get what I mean by likening it to spray bombing. Very much the en vogue art form of the 90’s.  Wikipedia does a fair job too: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ANSI_art    

Let’s get to a story

So, the year was whenever, I was in high-school and I had a PC computer I built myself in my room whirring away 24x7x365 basically providing a heat source.  My parents being great little enablers got me my own phone line for my room.  Now I was not a total square, they actually got me this because I talked on the phone like it was going out of style.  Seriously, I talked and talked for hours on the phone.  I had this terrible see through phone with the neon light in it?  Remember that thing?  It would get so hot.  The 90’s was full of terrible ideas.  Remember Zima?

see thru phone

So by my second year of high school I was fully building computers from components I either bought, traded with friends or made my dad buy for me.  Basically, every week I would tear apart a computer, and put it back together with some new component I cannibalized from some sucker.  One fine day I was over at a buddies house jamming on the guitar learning Metallica as any red blooded young Canadian boy was prone to do on their spare time.  So, my buddy Clinton says, “Hey, my dad got me a modem.  Want to see what it does?” I was like “What’s a modem dude?” *riffs Master of Puppets perfectly* (no that’s a lie, I still to this day suck at Master of Puppets). Clinton was like “Whoa Dude! That was an amazing riff (lie!) and a modem is like this way we can talk to other computers over the phone line.” Now this piqued my interest.  I knew stuff like this existed, I think at this time AOL was sending CD Roms out in the mail so this wasn’t completely new to me but I did not have a modem at home and Clinton did.  See where we’re getting here?

Clinton fired up this old Tandy (maybe?) and it got to the familiar DOS C:\ prompt and he did something like “ATDT 9055555555” and after some terrible sounds we were connected.  To a BBS.  I do not remember the name of the BBS or even what Clinton showed me but I immediately lit my axe on fire, backed out of his room, and headed right home as the sounds of fire trucks echoed along with Master of Puppets. 

Once home I found my dad in his usual position, prostrate on the couch with the newspaper in one hand and a TV remote in the other.  What was on?  I’ll give you one guess?  CURLING! (Seriously I don’t remember what was on but chances are it was curling, that guy loves a good Bonspiel!). I’m like:

“Dad, dad, dad.”

“Huh? Says here Hackner may win the Briar.”

“Great dad, he’s a really good skip, tough but fair, calls the shots well. Dad?”

“Huh?”

“Clinton’s dad bought a modem? It’s 1200 baud.  He can dial people’s computers with it? Can we get one?”

“Who’s Clinton.”

“Honestly dad, that is not important right now.  What is important is we get in the car and go to Radio Shack.”

“What’s a modem?”

“Come on I’ll show you. Bring your wallet.”

In my revisionist memory my dad jumped up, patted me on the head, told me my version of Master of Puppets was the best he’s heard and drove us to Radio Shack where we bought a modem, took me to get a puppy and told me I was the best son he ever had over ice cream.  While I don’t think it happened exactly that way the important part here is he delivered me a modem.

What I do remember of that first modem was the terrible sound it made.  My dad got us a 1200 baud external modem (I don’t think there were even internal cards at this time) and I was tasked with figuring this out.   I am fairly certain it was this Hayes Smart Modem.

Hayes Smartmodem

After much futzing and stressing I finally got it connected.  But of course, I didn’t have anyone, or anyplace to call, except Clinton.    I tortured his poor mom because I simply didn’t understand the concept of modems, or phone calls for that matter.  I thought that a modem would just call a modem, not just dial a phone number and screech terribly in someone’s ear.  In retrospect it was probably a better sound than Master of Puppets riffs.

Let’s skip forward a bit now and get to my first BBS adventure.  Because I’m getting a bit rambly again (it’s Monday sorry).  So, I learned all about modems, how to install them, configure them, connect to other computers with them and I started surfing around and discovering BBS’s near me.  Remember, long distance charges (and tolls paid to the WWF phone line to hear Hulk Hogan talk) were basically the tax of a child’s life and if you grew up in the 90s there’s a good chance your parents were pretty militant about the charges appearing monthly on their phone bills.   So as a by-product we were forced to dial into BBS systems that were local.  Meaning we were actually helping develop a localized community of enthusiasts.  Which is pretty cool considering now it’s pretty rare you’re in an online community with people around you (unless you’re in the Leslieville Mothers group or a local FB group).   So, I am dialing BBS’s such as Hogan’s Alley BBS, Quantum Systems, Avalon, etc. and having a great old time on message boards, playing door games and sharing files and games with friends.  Then me and a buddy get the idea to build our own BBS’s and connect them together. 

The beginning of Durham Online Association

I decided to try my hand at the Remote Access BBS software.  Basically, the platform you use to create your own BBS.  This wasn’t coding per se, more like configuration of a very complicated piece of software that was responsible for managing connections, serving files, handling mail messages, and of course, door games.  I started plugging away and eventually created my first BBS of which the name escapes me. 

I posted some messages around the other BBS’s encouraging users to visit mine and had maybe 2 calls in a week.  It was not great.  The fact I don’t even remember the name of the BBS should tell you where this is heading.   The RECYCLE BIN!  Ha, ha good joke.  We didn’t even have that shit yet! Oh, how spoiled you young’uns are, with that ability to recover deleted files.  WE LIVE IN THE FUTURE!  

So, I trashed what I will chalk up to as my learning experience BBS and started on a new concept. This would tie together Durham Region, this would be the hub for ALL the Pamela Anderson pics a young man could handle, THIS place would have ALL the best DOOR games and be a resource for other sysops to learn and share information, and feature one of the most popular aspects of a bulletin board system… message boards.

Message boards came in all kinds of flavours and subjects ranging from world news and popular topics (cars, video games, etc.) to the obscure (Gothic chats, short stories, etc.).  If you have been on Reddit recently you can kind of understand the concept of a “message board for anything”.  If you had a niche chances are there were at least a couple other people talking about it on a BBS message board. 

At the time, a network of message boards called Fidonet which was really a worldwide BBS based messaging and file transfer system.  Basically, this was both group and private email before email was available (to us, the masses.)  Fidonet had a pretty basic yet elegant way of moving messages around. As the owner of a BBS you could apply to be a Fidonet hub.  As a hub you would not only just subscribe to these message groups but you would agree to “toss” the messages to another hub.  In my case, since I lived in Whitby, Ontario I could get local calling from Pickering, Ontario and Oshawa, Ontario.  So, the idea was a hub in Toronto called Pickering (locally) and passed on the messages.  Pickering hub would call me locally and send me the messages, I would call Oshawa (again locally) and send them the messages.  We would do these calls a couple times a day and it was a brilliant way to literally play “Telephone game” and move messages across the world using mostly local calling.  At it’s peak in the mid 90’s Fidonet had over 40,000 systems in operation with millions of users all around the world using it.   The broad availability of low-cost internet and services like AOL ushered in the concept of stand-alone email which was ultimately the demise of the FidoNet system.

One of my most memorable BBS adventures was being a FidoNet hub.  As I described above we had to dial these other nodes directly to shuttle these messages from one region to another.  So that meant we had a script that worked with a little piece of software and provided a list including numbers, times to call, and what message groups (aka subreddits) we needed to transfer to the next hub or node.  One late night I had to update my script to add a new node to the list of people to dial.  Well I got one character wrong, in the phone number.  I didn’t know this of course because like any good script kiddie I never tested my work! Why? I was perfect! You should hear my Master of Puppets riff! Anyways one digit wrong and my computer called this poor asshole all night and day trying to send messages to him.  This old dude was just that, an old dude and had no idea what the hell was going on with his phone ringing about every 5 minutes with nothing more than a terrible noise on the other end.  He eventually called Bell, who cut my line off until they knew what was happening.  That was an interesting chat with my dad.

The beginning of the end….

So BBS’s didn’t really last a very long time in the 90’s, by 1995 modems were handling packet switching networks and TCIP/IP was the dominant protocol, allowing users to connect directly to web pages and services hosted without the need to directly dial them up.  Many BBS’s – especially those relying on subscription models started to disappear like so many Metallica CD’s into the eternal recycle bin of history. 

Durham Online Association (or DoA as I referred to it) was no exception.  Once I discovered HTML Markup language I quickly traded my Pamela Anderson pics, door games and, FidoNet messages for flying toasters, dancing babies, and GEOCITIES free hosting!  Web development was here and I was ready to embrace it. I learned a lot from running my BBS.  I learned what people want is rarely what I thought they wanted.  I learned that this type of work makes for very late nights, and I learned the importance of review and testing things, I learned to create something from nothing, and I became very good at Laser Tag (another story, another time).

As always if you want to learn more about anything, or have Mike set you up a BBS use our contact form to get in touch.