Dialup Modems, Bulletin Boards and 1980’s computers…

It was 1995, and the only thing we knew for sure was that none of us had a clue about how we might offer Internet services to the masses; nor did we have the budget to buy any of the uber-expensive bits of kit that we might need. How could we act as that crucial bridge that was needed between a customer dialling in to us, wanting to connect on, outwards to the net? To start with, we knew nothing about routers, gateways, firewalls, e-mail, or any other aspect of Internet technology. BUT, we did know a lot – quite a lot as it happened at the time – about Linux, and all things Linux – albeit from a very limited, nerdy geeky kind of perspective. 

As well as our Linux leanings, we also took much inspiration from the technologies that had preceded the arrival of the ubiquitous web browser. Before starting University in the late 1980s / early 1990s, a few of us had been lucky enough to have computers at home. At that time, the machines we typically had exposure to were fairly limited, but nevertheless gave us so much to tinker with, and learn from. I remember staying up for nights on end, typing in pages and pages of BASIC code in to our Commodore PET from PCWorld magazine for some simple shoot-‘em-up game…only for the thing not to work when the time came to enter ‘RUN’…and then having to spend countless hours tracking down errors. As laborious as it was at the time, that process of debugging code line-by-line, was some of the best training a teenager could have at the time.

Some of the PCs around at the time were:

  • Commodore PET – the very first one had ‘chiclet’ keys with a built-in cassette tape deck
  • TRS-80 – Never owned one, but always liked to play with them in Radio Shack (‘Tandy’ in the UK)
  • Sinclair ZX-80 & ZX-81 – Sir Clive was way ahead of his time, and then came the C5…
  • Commodore Vic20 – Terrible, with only 20-odd chars. screen width. Wasn’t around for too long, but paved the way for something much nicer: the…
  • Commodore64 – much, much better rendition of the Vic20, and great games machine
  • Acorn Atom – A very professional, compact and tidy little unit. Still needed to be plugged in to a TV though, but was the shape of things to come.
  • Sinclair Spectrum – remember those many-functioned ‘dead-flesh’ rubber keys?
  • BBC computer – dominated by the model ‘B’ for some reason – did anyone ever own a model ‘A’?
  • Commodore Amiga – One of the first truly ‘multimedia’ home computers
  • Apple IIe… then followed by LISA…and then by Macintosh…the rest is history…

Around that time (mid-1980s), some of us had access to the various 19.2K, 28K and (later on) 56K dial-up bulletin board services with our USRobotics or PACE modems. One such was British Telecom’s PRESTEL service, but was quite expensive to access, and subscribe to. BT’s service – based on the French ‘Minitel’ videotex offering – had its own primitive e-mail/messaging facility, not too dissimilar from the other bulletin board providers who also provided an early rendition of e-mail. They took the form of simple text ‘mailboxes’ that were part of a larger mail relay network know as FIDO. The idea was fairly simple: each bulletin board server represented a node on the FIDO network, and would exchange mail with other nodes in both directions as and when a dialup connection was established between them. If a message was destined for a user on another bulletin board system, then it’s header would be marked for ‘off-net’ forwarding, and providing that the destination bulletin board was also a member of the FIDO relay network, the user would eventually receive their message when an inter-node connection was made to exchange messages in bulk (usually at night). The e-mail service of today works in pretty-much the same way.

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