30 Years Ago: How Hayes Modems, Bulletin Boards Presaged the Web

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2013-09-12 Print this article Print

Other BBSes charged users a subscription fee for access or were operated by a business as a means of supporting their customers.

The Hayes dial-up modem, which sported the first standardized command set, was at the center of all this early networking activity.

The Hayes command set is a specific command language originally developed for the Hayes Smartmodem 300-bits-per-second (baud) modem in 1981, the year IBM finally came out with a PC—on its third try—that caught on in the market.

The Hayes command set consists of a series of short text strings that combine to produce complete commands for operations such as dialing, hanging up and changing the parameters of the connection. The vast majority of dial-up modems use the Hayes command set in numerous variations.

"Hayes' modem created standards for addressing modems that were widely adopted almost immediately," said Wayne Rash, a veteran IT journalist who writes for eWEEK and other publications. The Virginia-based Rash was a bulletin board moderator for several years in the 1980s.

"You basically set a string of characters that started with capital 'A' and capital 'T' and something that followed that. AT stood for attention to the modem, and DT stood for dial tone. And then you'd put a [phone] number in. The modem then would dutifully dial that phone number, wait until it heard another modem tone, then it would make the connection."

Then you'd hear the familiar buzzing and beeping sounds that all modems produced when they tried to make the connection. Those sounds have all but become a distant echo of times gone by—and they probably aren't missed by many former users who remember failing multiple times to get their modems to connect.

The personal computers that connected to the modem via phone lines were in their infancy. The Apple II was out in 1980, but it wasn't a connectable device. IBM's PC didn't go to market until 1981, and it, too, wasn't connected. The Macintosh, with the first graphical user interface, wasn't available until 1984.

CP/M was the computer operating system that was a precursor to IBM's DOS, recalled Brian Greiner, a Toronto-based software designer who served as a "sysop" back in the early days of personal computerdom.

"You basically had to build your own computer from pieces," Greiner said. "There were few prebuilt computers then; the Tandy TRS-80 was one I remember. This was an era of 8-bit microprocessors. 64K —64,000 bytes—was considered a lot of RAM [random access memory], just to put things in context. Computers had more promise than actuality. People were in love with the magic."

With such little memory and storage capacity, the first PCs were only able to send text. Photos and graphics, which commonly run in the megabytes of digital weight, were out of the question; they could literally take days to transmit, Rash said.

But once people got their computers running, they wanted to connect and share information—even if it was just "hello, how's the weather there." One of the first bulletin board networks, Greiner recalled, was UUCPNet, which was run by a handful of universities.


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