What did you do on your last snow day? Watch Netflix in your pajamas? Next time the weather is bad, remember Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, who spent the Great Blizzard of 1978 developing plans for the first Computerized Bulletin Board System (known as a CBBS, or, more commonly, as a BBS). Christensen and Suess launched their creation on Feb. 16, 1978, using a computer, a modem, and a phone line.
A BBS allowed anyone with a PC and a modem to dial in to a specific number, view ANSI graphics, read messages, download primitive software, and leave their own replies—the electronic version of visiting a community bulletin board in a library or grocery store. The next time a user dialed in, he or she could pick up any new messages. (Sometimes a single conversation could take months to complete, depending on how often participants dialed in.) A system operator—“SysOp”—maintained the BBS from his basement or the corner of his home office. Because long-distance charges added up quickly, most BBS communities were local, even though many users never met in person.
Peak BBS usage occurred in the early 1990s, pre-America Online, when TextFiles.com estimates 45,000 BBSes were in operation. Twenty years later, post-AIM, post-Facebook, and post-Reddit, only a few hundred still exist—and most are accessible via Internet-based tools such as Telnet. Only about 20 true dial-up BBSes still exist, frequented by the truly devoted. (BBSes were still going strong in China, however, well into the 2000s.)
The BBS world was celebrated in a four-part 2005 documentary produced by filmmaker Jason Scott. The full documentary is available on archive.org, but you can get the flavor in this 10-minute YouTube compilation video. It’s worth watching just to hear the unmistakable sound of a dial-up modem.
Tech Time Warp is a weekly feature that looks back at interesting moments and milestones in tech history.