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

eWEEK 30: Before the always-on World Wide Web, there were bulletin board systems that people dialed into via 1,200-baud modems to exchange messages and information.

Long before there were Websites, chat rooms, email accounts and social networks, there were computer bulletin boards. Bulletin board systems were a precursor to the modern form of the World Wide Web and social networks in the way they allowed people to share information and ideas.

This was 30 years ago, and it still would be years before Sir Timothy Berners-Lee came up with the concept of the World Wide Web and Vint Cerf and others helped put together the components of the Internet that we now know and love.

Telecommunication via text—photos and graphics took far too long to transmit over 1,200-baud modems—was all about bulletin boards. Some of the more well-known bulletin boards were The Source, The Well and PCMagNet (which eventually morphed into ZDNet, now owned by CBS Interactive). While email prevailed inside corporate LANs, bulletin board services were the way most people exchanged messages and information before Web-based email systems sprung up.

"I'd say there was a confluence of two things [that eventually led to the Internet and World Wide Web]," Tom Geller, a longtime IT journalist and video producer who used bulletin boards in the 1980s, told eWEEK.

"The technology for what we know as the Internet absolutely came from ARPA [Advanced Research Projects Agency], the government and universities—official channels like that. The social world of today's Internet? I'd say its parents are the old bulletin board systems," Geller said.

"Those sort of came together and were married in commercial services like AOL [America Online]. That's where people outside of the ivory tower were getting in touch with the technology that was really worldwide," he said.

A bulletin board system, or BBS, is a computer system running software that allows users to connect and log into the system using a terminal program. Once logged in, a user can perform functions such as uploading and downloading software and data, reading news and bulletins, and exchanging messages with other users, either through email, public message boards or sometimes via direct chatting. Many BBSes also offered online games, which allowed users to compete with each other, and BBSes with multiple phone lines often provided chat rooms, allowing users to interact with each other.

Originally BBSes were accessed only over a phone line using a modem. But by the early 1990s some BBSes allowed access via a Telnet, packet-switched network or packet radio connection.

Ward Christensen, who retired last year after 44 years at IBM as a technical sales specialist, coined the term "bulletin board system" as a reference to the traditional cork-and-pin bulletin board often found in entrances of supermarkets, schools, libraries or other public areas where people can post messages, advertisements or community news.

After Christensen and colleague Randy Suess computerized this method of communications, the name of the first BBS system was born: Computerized Bulletin Board System, or CBBS. During their zenith days from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, most BBSes were run as a hobby free of charge by the system operator (or "sysop").

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...