HACKERS MUSEUM PART 3: CAN I HAZ BBS?
February 19, 2021
A guest post by @the_psychobilly
Following up our “Hackers Museum series”, after we saw how internet was created in the 70s and reviewing the fathers and myths of the cyberpunk culture we’ll now shed a light on the pre-web BBS communities, and how early hackers established their first online communities.
Late January, 1978, Chicago area.
Randy SUESS: “Hey, Ward, remember that chat we had at the CACHE?”
Ward Christensen: ” Well, yeah, that project about coding a virtual Bulletin Board?”
RS: “Exactly, the exact same thing as the cork bulletin board you find in groceries, but using that new thing: computers”
WC: ” Well, given the blizzard outside I’m pretty much stuck in front of my computer anyway”
RS: ” Let’s do this “
That conversation never happened, but CBBS, the first Online Bulletin Board System was born two weeks later. Users could phone and connect to a central unit responsible for picking up and down the users calls.
Modems by that time were grey boxes called “acoustic couplers” where you could stick a standard phone handset. It wasn’t a modem per se, you also had to connect to an Altair 8800 card. The very first real modem, the Hayes Smartmodem came out only three years later to remove the clutter.
The interface was a command line, only ascii chars were available, although some file transfer capabilities appeared later.
Early BBSs were tiny islands compared to internet, users had to phone local BBS and carefully count the time they stayed in, as regular landlines fares applied, and modem were communicating at a whooping 300 bauds (300 bits per second or 42*7-bits ascii chars /s !) – this article text content would have taken half a minute to beam.
Nonetheless, this was all new: you had a virtual persona (“On the internet, Nobody knows you’re a dog” 1991 meme), a Handle name, and could meet people around common interests more easily than publishing a newspaper insert.
Welcome to the “Club”
In the early eighties, hackers were meeting in IRL hobbyist clubs, the vast majority of communication mediums were paper (zines) and talk, also softwares were shared on 3½-inch floppy disk. Each respectable Computer club in the eighties would have his own BBS. The oldest and most respected one still is up today and PWNing: the Berlin Chaos Computer Club, or the CCC. They were the first social networks, and they stayed as such for almost 20 years. Some are even still accessible on the web, like Telehack or with the use of telnet protocol.
The BBS weren’t a network stack protocol implementation like NNTP is for newsgroups, but software based.
A particular software spread more than others: Citadel by Jeff Prothero AKA Cynbe ru Taren
The Great Citadel
The Citadel BBS software had been the most ubiquitous software used by BBS users and operators. It placed the ground logic of most chat systems that appeared later, like IRC or ICQ. Everyone could create a group named a room where messages were organized in communities. The main room where all users landed was called a lobby, just like in a hotel.
Nowadays some forks are still alive as web groupwares, such as Citadel/UX – WebCit
.NFO and ANSI art scene
IBM Personal Computer (model 5150), known as IBM PC appeared in 1981. It changed the BBS landscape because its OS (PC DOS) was using an ANSI charset. ANSI is a super-set of ASCII charset enlarging its code page by 1 bit ( 00-255 ) or 1 full byte per character, thus doubling the ascii charset length ( 128 chars to 256 ). This introduced pseudo-graphic characters like Blocks and Box Drawing (░▒▓█▄▀■│║┤╣┐┌└┘┴┬┼├─╗╔╚╝╩╦╬═). This single obscure technical feature unleashed a graphic revolution on the terminal-based BBS Scene.
BBS had a welcome screen on connect, ANSI allowed those banners to become graphical. There is a large collection of those on the TXTFILES website. You will need an ansi viewer like pablodraw or some [bash trick] to load them, resize your terminal screen to 80 chars.
curl -s http://artscene.textfiles.com/ansi/welcomes/gavel86.ans | iconv -f 437 $1 | pv --quiet --rate-limit 3500
The file based pendant to the BBS banner scene were and still are .nfo files. When doing a release on floppy, some crackers/warez groups began to embed info files. Those ANSI files were the place to make shoutouts, give credits, and simply put: brag about all the 1337 skillz needed to reverse and patch a software’s protection mechanism.
I hope you enjoyed our BBS and ANSI scene brush-up. This is a fairly large topic we only began to explore, I encourage you to dig further. Here are some links: