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

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

"Looking back on it, there was a basic need for people to talk," Greiner said, "and get to know people, for whatever reason—sort of like Twitter."

Bulletin boards then became very popular, and very quickly, remembers Bill Machrone, former technical editor and editor in chief of PC Magazine in the 1980s and early '90s.

"We had a very popular utilities column, and our charter was to write a little piece of code in Assembler, a utility that did something useful—like display all of your files by size, say, or 'undelete.' Something that DOS or the operating system couldn't do," Machrone said.

"When we first started, people were so hungry for this [code] that when they got their magazine, they would sit down and retype this code character for character into their machines, and then run the thing. Invariably, there would be mistyping of the code, and we'd get letters and calls asking why our 'stupid' code didn't work. Of course, it was mostly coding errors that were at fault. That was laborious for us, and there was no good way to handle fixes. So we decided to start a bulletin board so that people could just dial in and download the utility."

Not long after the magazine turned on the BBS using a Hayes modem, "the phone line was jammed 24/7," Machrone said. "Then we added a second line, and a third, and so on. Every time we did that, the lines were jammed. It was a wild ride; the utilities were so popular. Eventually we had 36 lines in New York City and 16 more in San Francisco."

This all peaked in the 1985-86 timeframe, Machrone said. This was the birth of PCMagNet, which eventually morphed into ZDNet, which was bought by C/net and is now an online service belonging to C/net's owner, CBS Interactive.

During this time, all the long-distance calls were being handled by AT&T for the regional Baby Bells, and calls were expensive—unlike the free and low-cost calling to which we're accustomed today.

One day Machrone, who was running PCMagNet, got a call from a man at AT&T Long Line Services, who asked him bluntly: "'What the hell do you think you're doing and what kind of stupid prank did you pull?' What had happened was we had essentially crashed the 714 area code [in Orange County, Calif.]! Everybody had gotten their magazine that day, and there was a particularly tasty utility in it. They all got home from work that day, everybody signed onto their modems and tried to dial us—all at the same time.

"The traffic blew the switch—it was too much for the switch. AT&T threatened to turn off our numbers; we bought some time with them and then eventually moved our network onto CompuServe, with our own block of numbers.

"Eventually, we and PC Week [now eWEEK] built their own online division in Boston," Machrone said.


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