What did we do before email existed? Coincidentally, this episode answers exactly that question: we used Computer Bulletin Board Systems! In today’s episode of This Week in Tech History, Regis and Faith talk about what brought CBBSs to fruition, the circumstances that led to its invention, and what kind of plans Regis has to break into the modern BBS world.
(THE FRONTIER THEME PLAYS)
Hey. Hello, Faith. How are you?
<Laugh> I’m good. I just got your Slack that you’re so nervous <laugh>. You’ve been on the Frontier so many times <laugh>.
I’m nervous. Yes, I’m nervous.
Oh my gosh. Well, this one’s easy, actually, because we just get to shoot the shit about this random event in tech history, so no pressure. Don’t worry. I’m not gonna ask you any hard questions <laugh>. (Regis: <Laugh>.) How is carrying the dev team without Richie this week going? You guys doing okay?
Yeah, we’re not touching, too much [on] the front end, so we miss him <laugh>. (Faith: <Laugh>.) But I’m sure he has way more important things to worry about right now. (Faith: Yes.) I hope he is hanging out with his new baby.
Yeah, I’m looking at Slack right now, and there’s an adorable picture of a newborn baby in a Gun.io onesie. (Regis: <Laugh>.) Thank you for that, Richie, if you’re listening. Okay, Regis, this is called “This Week in Tech History,” and it’s a new thing we’re doing for season three where we talk about something that happened this week in tech history, and then you and I will just chit chat about it for like 15 minutes. It’s pretty straightforward.
Steven Punter (01:34):
(ROBOTIC SYNTHESIZER MUSIC PLAYS) We didn’t just suddenly wake up one morning, and we had the Xbox. We didn’t wake up one morning and the Internet was there, you know? How did we get there? That’s what you wanna know about history for.
Ward Christensen (01:47):
(INTENSE SYNTHESIZER MUSIC PLAYS)
What I have next to me is the first bulletin board in the world: CBBS, Chicago. People wondered if the “C” stood for Christensen, or Chicago, or whatever, and no it didn’t, ‘cause there was no such thing as a BBS, so it was a computerized bulletin board system.
On February 16th, 1978, the first computerized bulletin board system, also known as a CBBS, was created in Chicago, Illinois. It was developed by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, not related to Dr. Seuss, I did look that up, as a way for computer hobbyists to communicate with each other and is widely considered the first form of email to exist. I did not know that. While the idea had existed for a while, it wasn’t until a massive blizzard hit Chicago in January of 1978, allowing the two men to dedicate a significant chunk of time to developing it. Wow. Shout out to that blizzard.
Ward Christensen (02:47):
January 16th, 1978. I went out to go to work, and it had been snowing most of the night, and I was unable to get out, because it just kept snowing and kept snowing. So I think I shoveled for like, two hours and probably came in at like, 9:30, 10 o’clock and realized I was not going to work that day. So I called Randy and I said, “You know, I’ve got the computer club recorder, where people can call to find out when the next meeting is, and to leave questions, and things like that, and why not take that line and put a system on it that people could upload newsletters, and things like that? Newsletter articles and so on. And we could do a club project.” And I remember he said, essentially, that was, sounded like a neat idea, but forget the club, ‘cause you know what a committee-run something will be. It’ll take it forever to happen.
Randy Suess (03:35):
I had too many years in the Navy to know, let’s not talk about it. Just do it.
Ward Christensen (03:43):
The two of us will do it, and you do the software, and I’ll do the hardware, and tell me, you know, when are you gonna have the software ready? You know, like a project manager.
Randy Suess (03:53):
The reason everything worked out so well is that we just, kind of, inherently understood each other. He let me do what I did. I let him do what he did.
Ward Christensen (04:03):
Took me about two weeks, probably about the end of the month, before I had some software ready to test, and a little bit of playing around, and let a few friends know it was there, and try it, and get some early feedback on things that it needed. And, basically, after the two weeks of designing, and testing, and put it online, and refined it a little, and we called it a month. So February 16th became the, sort of, arbitrary birthdate of it. And it happened so quickly because of Randy’s brilliant initiative in pulling it back from being a club project, which would take forever and would be something more like the ARPANET that I had been in, which had a lot of people…
They told people that it took a month, when in reality, it only took a couple weeks, and they just didn’t want people to think it was a rush job. That’s fascinating. Once a user has logged into the BBS of their choice, so that is, that stands for “bulletin board system” of their choice, they’re able to download and upload files, interact with messaging boards, and play games. So seems really advanced for 1978. All of this was done through old school modems, which had to be connected through a landline phone. If a BBS had multiple phone lines, it could function as a chat room. It’s interesting when you look at these things on the whole, they basically functioned as the precursors to social media and email with services like netmail and fitonet coming into play. Down the road, the introduction of dial-up internet and web browsers, like Mosaic, largely took over. And then by 1994 to 1995, the bottom had fallen out of the BBS market. Darn. It seems like anything that starts with BBS…or BB is destined to fail. Like BBM, Blackberry Messenger, (Regis: <Laugh>.) While BBSs do still exist, it’s primarily for hobbyists, with a weird niche of Taiwanese youth, who use it as a communication tool. Fascinating.
I just want to mention that this event was on February 16. It’s my birthday, my daughter’s birthday, and Jess’s birthday as well <laugh>.
Okay. I have one very important question for you, Regis, which is, as a developer, have you ever made the time that it took for you to do something seem longer, so that it didn’t seem like a rush job? Like, that’s fascinating to me.
Yeah. Yeah, I did things that (Faith: <Laugh>.) took less time than I said, but it’s not that I wanted to give people the impression that it was a rush job. It’s more like, I was afraid to give people the impression that it was too easy <laugh>.
Oh, like that’s the expectation. Yeah <laugh>.
<Laugh>. Yes. So, well, people don’t like to pay for things that are too easy, so…<laugh>.
They will come up with harder tasks to do, and you say, “Oh, this one is tricky.” And he will be like, “No, the last thing I asked you to do, you did in two weeks. This is easy. It’s easy. Get it done. Come on.” <Laugh>.
<Laugh> Yeah. The expectation, the bar is like, always rising if you work like that. The other thing that like, struck me here is this feels like a very important innovation. You know, Abbey’s backstory that she provided, shares that like, it really was a precursor for what we now think of as like, social media, and email, and general online communication, but it was done by hobbyists. And I’m curious what you think about, if this blizzard hadn’t hit, and these two guys who were just, kind of like, toying around hadn’t developed this as a hobby, do you think it would’ve taken longer for corporations to figure this technology out?
A crisis always speeds up things. There are…this crisis [was] created by the blizzard, so that certainly speeded things up. But yeah, I think it would take a little bit longer, but not too much longer. When new things are invented, people tend to think like, oh, if this person didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have this thing. It’s not true. When something is invented, what generally happens is that you have a lot of people trying to invent that. So, it’s not that we were privileged, yet, by having this person invent something for us, a lot of people were trying to grab that prize (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) So…
So it was inevitable.
Yes. It can take longer, and it might be not so good if done later by another person, et cetera.
I’m always interested, I know it’s like, impossible to test this empirically, but I’m really interested by the competing motivations of developing or innovating for your job, right? Like, you’re being paid to innovate, and naturally the motivation there is monetary gain, right? And alternatively, innovating because it’s a hobby of yours, and you’re genuinely doing it because it fascinates you, it gets you into a state of flow. I mean, examples like this, where it’s, you know, nobody was doing this, because a boss told them to. They were doing it because it was a hobby, and, you know, presumably they were getting a lot of like, self-gratification from it. I just wonder what’s the stronger motivation?
I’m pretty much sure that if you like to innovate, and that’s what you are doing, that’s a better motivation for sure. (Faith: Mmm.) But it’s not the guarantee of success at all. Along these years, I saw a lot of good product, good software. I had a couple of colleagues that had bright ideas, and they struggled to launch that idea as a product, but it’s a whole new thing. You develop something, and then you launch as a product, and you have to sell that, and you have to have an audience that will join your platform. It’s not guaranteed that an innovative idea will succeed at all, (Faith: Mmm.) but for motivation, yes. If you are passionate for innovation, and that’s what you do, that’s a much better motivation. We have this trend that is almost a decade or more right now, but in the games industry, you have very young developers. They don’t have funds. They sacrifice themselves to launch a game that maybe succeeds or not. We have a couple of cases, not a couple, but a lot of cases of success where people were struggling alone in their room, coding by themselves, and they hit the target. (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) They got a huge success. Their game was popular and (Faith: Right.) big money, as well.
Right. Well, it’s also, it’s like open source technologies, right? Like, the folks who are grinding on those are doing it because, presumably, they get a lot of just, gratification out of solving those problems for themselves. Like, generally, when you’re developing open source software, you’re not doing it for the paycheck, right? And we’ve seen a ton of innovations come out of OSS.
Yeah. But that’s something that amazes me. I think, how [do] these people get the time to dedicate that amount of working something that’s open source. It must have some trick there. Something that I don’t understand how that works.
Or maybe they’re already millionaires, you know. They don’t have to worry about a paycheck.
Maybe <laugh>. (Faith: <Laugh>.) Maybe that’s it.
We should totally test like the instance of being extremely wealthy against, you know, also happening to be a full-time OSS (Regis: <Laugh>.) developer <laugh>.
So if we get back to the computerized bulletin board system, which I also just love that it’s named after a bulletin board, which I think is generally not even in people’s vocabulary anymore. (Regis: <Laugh>.) This is really like, one of the first experiences of the Internet that we can really trace back to, right? Like, having essentially email capabilities, they didn’t think of it as email, of course, being able to communicate through a computer with other people, upload and download files. And it makes me think about my first experiences with the Internet, which frankly, you know, don’t feel too much more advanced than the computerized bulletin board system, right? Like, in the 90s, I was doing a lot of dialing up <laugh> and, you know, webpages looked like, I mean, you know what they looked like. (Regis: <Laugh>.) Do you remember your first experiences with the Internet?
I had to pull a wire out across my house, (Faith: <Laugh>.) up to my room. My parents would get upset, but I would do it anyway. I would wait ‘til midnight, so the connection was better, and nobody would use the phone. Do you remember that?
Oh my gosh. It was the worst.
Your huge 30 megabyte download would break <laugh>.
<Laugh>. Eventually we had separate phone lines, which was really helpful. But, you know, in the early, early days, (DIAL-UP SOUNDS) it also deafened you when you picked up the phone, and somebody was on the Internet. Oh my gosh, It was the worst.
A phone, it’s a tool to communicate, and we were using the internet for that same purpose, to communicate. I do recall that my first experience was entering into chats on (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) those portals. That was the term back in the 90s, “portals.” (Faith: Yes.) <Laugh>. Right. And well, we were talking to people, but not through the phone, and we were competing with the phone lines. I do recall an interview with Bill Gates, with David Letterman, and he was like, questioning him if the Internet wouldn’t do the same as their radio or record a program, (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) so you can watch any time you want. Although, the difference was not so visible at that time, it was a huge difference. Well, I was just wondering how Internet replaced phones, and today, nobody likes to use a phone call <laugh> anymore.
I know. That’s another kind of question that Abbey posed for us, which is like, at the time in 1978, when folks are interacting with the computerized bulletin board system for the first time, it probably felt like, oh my goodness, this is such a powerful tool for connectivity. It’s gonna bring people so much closer together. We can communicate without being physically close to each other. We can share visual files with each other, you know, without sending them in the mail. And I think the general consensus in 2023 is actually, kind of, what you said. Like, well, maybe, actually, the internet drives us further apart. And so I just wonder like, do you think there was any notion of that with like, these initial bulletin board system users? Like, you know, actually, this feels kind of distancing rather than bringing folks closer?
Mmm. I’m not sure. I’m not sure. In ‘78, men had landed on [the] moon 10 years ago, but people are very excited with technology and the future. The future seemed brighter than it looks today, I guess <laugh>. (Faith: Mmm-hmmm <affirmative>.) But, maybe, people got very excited with that new thing. “Computers! Oh, computers are not part of our lives. Now, we are the men of the future. Now the future has come to us.” Maybe there was that excitement, but now times, there are always the grumpy people that say, “No.” (Faith: The grumpy people <laugh>.) “That’s the end. That’s the end. That’s not how you do things.”
Right. Well, and I also think in the early days of the Internet, like the connectivity was a result of actual physical connectivity. If you’re using a computerized bulletin board system, you understand, physically, how these modems are connected to each other. Like, in fact, you probably plug them in. And so there’s a, probably, a clearer sense of how it’s working, but also like, to whom you’re connected, and how. And I’m thinking of this in the context of like, you know, my mom at the time was like, fresh outta college, and she, in her childhood, used party lines. Right? I don’t know if you had those, but it’s a phone line that’s shared with other people, like other neighbors on your street. And to me, the CBBS kind of reminds me of a party line, too. And in that sense, you know, your access to technology is contextualized within a community. Like, you’re sharing this access with other people, and so I think that inherently like, kept folks still feeling like, part of a physical community, as opposed to what we have today, which is, like you said, people don’t even like to pick up the phone anymore and hear voices, you know? It’s all text messages.
Yeah, and because it was harder to connect things, and you had to have a little bit of knowledge to use that thing. Although, people would say it’s simple <laugh>.
And you mentioned that there are people that still use that thing today, as a hobby. And to this day, that’s the case; you need to have a specific knowledge to use a BBS system. (Regis: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) That brings people closer. Maybe what disconnects people today, is that they don’t even know what’s going on.
A cousin, the other day, sent me a video showing young people trying to turn on an old computer, (Faith: <Laugh>.) and they would struggle to figure [out] how to do that. And he was like, “See? We are getting old. These young kids are way smarter than we were.” And I said, “That’s not true. That’s not true.” I read this article the other day saying that this is the first generation where the kids have a lower IQ (Faith: Mmm.) score than their parents. (Faith: Interesting.) Yeah. But, I mean, when I was a kid, and I first touched a computer, I had to use some of my brain to get to my first internet connection. I had to pick a wire, (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) go to my room, et cetera. It’s always harder than today. Today’s like you don’t have to do anything. If you have to insert a username and password, that’s just too much already. (Faith: Right.) So, I guess, people might have this feeling of disconnection, because they don’t connect to their own brains, to their own selves. They’re just relaxing, and dizzy, and doing nothing all the time. Like, (Faith: Right.) if you’re not connected to yourself, you don’t connect to others.
Yeah. It’s like we’ve reduced friction, arguably, too much.
Well, that brings me to my last question for you, which is, is there any part of you that is interested in joining this weird niche of Taiwanese youth and becoming a modern day user of a BBS?
I would say that 9% of me wants to join that, (Faith: Oh, hell yeah.) wants to dig that hole, and figure things out. (Faith: Let’s do it.) That sounds fun. And I like old things. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN) It’s a hobby of mine to repair old computers, old video games and things like that, (Faith: Yeah.) so that’s very compelling to me. Yeah, that sounds very cool.
I’m gonna share that with Abbey, and maybe she can convince you to do it, in the name of science, for a blog post (Regis: <Laugh>.) <laugh>.
I’ll do it. I’ll do it, and I’ll share the results on Slack.
Alright, Abbey, you hear that? <Laugh>. Thanks for listening to the Frontier podcast, powered by Gun.io. We drop two episodes per week, so if you like this episode, be sure to subscribe on your platform of choice, and come hang out with us again next week, and bring all your internet friends. If you have questions or recommendations, just shoot us a Twitter DM @thefrontierpod and we’ll see you next week.