The Lost Civilization of Dial-Up Bulletin Board Systems

A former systems operator logs back in to the original computer-based social network.

The logout screen for "The Cave," the author's 1990s-era bulletin board system.  (Benj Edwards)

I have a vivid, recurring dream. I climb the stairs in my parents’ house to see my old bedroom. In the back corner, I hear a faint humming.

It’s my old computer, still running my 1990s-era bulletin board system (BBS, for short), “The Cave.” I thought I had shut it down ages ago, but it’s been chugging away this whole time without me realizing it—people continued calling my BBS to play games, post messages, and upload files. To my astonishment, it never shut down after all.

BBSes once numbered in the tens of thousands in North America. These mostly text-based, hobbyist-run services played a huge part in the online landscape of the 1980s and ‘90s. Anyone with a modem and a home computer could dial-in, often for free, and interact with other callers in their area code.

Then the internet came along in the mid-1990s. Like a comet to the dinosaurs, it upended the natural order of things and wiped BBSes out. My system was one of the casualties, a victim of the desire to devote all my online time to the internet. The same scenario repeated itself on thousands of computers across the country until, one by one, the brightest lights of the BBS world blinked out of existence.

* * *

In 1991, my dad brought home a small black plastic box from work. He was an electronics engineer and regularly swapped state-of-the-art tech with his coworkers.

“This is a modem,” my dad said. “You can connect to other computers over the telephone with it.”

At the time, dad didn’t mean the internet, which we’d never heard of (it was mostly used by universities and government institutions at the time). No, he was referring to BBSes.

The first BBS came to life in 1978 during a particularly bad Chicago blizzard. Its inventors, Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, wanted a way to keep up with their computer club without having to gather together in person. So they figured out a way to do it with computers.

The author’s computer connecting to BBS in 1996
(Benj Edwards)

The resulting software, called CBBS, allowed personal-computer owners with modems to dial-in to a dedicated system and leave messages that others would see later, when they, in turn, dialed up the BBS. People could, in theory, call BBSes anywhere, but since they'd have to pay for long-distance, they tended to stay local. The BBS concept was a digital version of a push-pin bulletin board that might flank a grocery store entrance or a college student union hallway.

By the time dad brought home the modem, BBSes had grown dramatically in scope. They facilitated file transfers, inter-BBS messaging networks, multi-node chat, and popular text-based games.

My 15-year-old brother began BBSing. He visited five or six local boards, with names like “Octopus’s Garden,” “Southern Pride,” and “Online's Place.” I followed in his footsteps the next summer, spending hundreds of glorious hours online.

Dialing into a BBS felt like whole-body teleportation. It was the intimacy of direct, computer-to-computer connection that did it. To call a BBS was to visit the private residence of a fellow computer fan electronically. BBS hosts had converted a PC—often their only PC—into a digital playground for strangers’ amusement.

For an 11-year-old exploring online spaces for the first time, my mental model for these electronic connections was physical. Although every BBS displayed walls of text—menus, options, and prompts—those characters somehow translated, in my brain, into a casual walk through a cozy living room or a stroll in a grassy yard.

Maybe it was because the system operators (sysops) that ran each BBS were always watching. Everything users did scrolled by on their screen, and they soaked in the joy of someone else using their computer. It was a gentle, pleasant form of surveillance.

The sysops might initiate one-on-one chat at any time. Long before texting and Slacking and Facebook messaging became the norm for interchange, BBS chats felt like being with someone in person. Sometimes strong personal relationships were built. My best friend is someone I first met when he called my BBS in 1993.

That personal connection was sorely missing on big-name online subscription services of the time—Prodigy, CompuServe, and AOL. Even today, the internet is so overwhelmingly intertwined that it doesn't have the same intimate feel. Once the web arrived in the mid-1990s, it seemed inevitable that the BBS would die off.

But every mass extinction has its holdouts. Even today, a small community of people still run and call BBSes. Many seek the digital intimacy they lost years ago; 373 BBSes still operate, according to the Telnet BBS Guide, mostly in the United States. Many are set up to be accessible via internet-connected tools like Telnet, a text-based remote-login protocol originally designed for mainframes.

Did any direct-access, telephone-dial-up BBSes survive the internet’s proverbial asteroid? Sure enough, there are about 20 known dial-up BBSes in North America. And of those, only a handful have been running non-stop since the mid-1990s. These are the true dinosaurs walking among us. Who dares to run such antique systems, and why? Have any of them been left running by accident like the BBS in my dream? I had to find out.

* * *

The first day of my virtual travels, I plugged the built-in modem of a vintage MS-DOS laptop into a phone jack in the corner of my den. It’s forgotten territory; I had to huddle in a dark alley beside the couch to access the port.

Today, the media often calls BBSes an internet-before-the-internet. But that is a grossly inaccurate characterization. The internet is a global network of billions of computers, across which data flows like water. BBSes are like remote Pacific islands, each populated with pocket civilizations that communicate reluctantly via message-in-a-bottle. Over a telephone line, bandwidth is lean and every bit counts. I typed each letter with weighty purpose as I logged into my first target, “The Keep BBS,” in Beaverton, Oregon. It has supposedly been running in various forms since 1983.

When first connecting to a BBS, the service typically displays a splash screen with the BBS’s name or some associated image rendered in ANSI graphics—colored, text-mode graphics using the IBM PC's extended ASCII character set. After that, the typical login or registration process. The latter usually requested a user’s full name, mailing address, phone number, birthday, and more. It's quite probing by today's standards, but was not as intimidating in a time when one couldn’t instantly look up a photo of someone's house online

A screenshot of The Keep
(Benj Edwards)

After signing up or logging in, the service might present a list of bulletins—messages from the sysop—or else go straight to a main menu. From there, the user enters single character selections like “R” to read messages, “E” to send email, “T” to see the file library (to download programs), or “G” to log off.

Once I created my account profile on “The Keep,” I encountered ample advice on how to avoid Y2K problems, browsed through a huge directory of games for the unpopular IBM OS/2 operating system, and read some messages left behind by users from 1997.

Visiting an old BBS still running today feels like strolling through a community frozen in time, Pompeii-style. The message threads are incomplete, with discussions left hanging. There are bulletins that post stern-sounding rules from the 1990s like “USERS WITH FAKE NAMES WILL BE BANNED FOREVER” or “Attempts to tamper, damage, or defraud this system are against Oregon and Federal laws and will be reported immediately to authorities.”

That sort of thing scared people back in the ‘90s.

* * *

On day two of my travels, I came across a curious entry in the dial-up BBS list called “Brazos Valley Hub,” in College Station, Texas, not too far from where my mom grew up.

How fitting, I thought, that a rugged individualist-type would still be running a dial-up only BBS (no Telnet) out in the middle of Texas. I dialed-in, looked around, and found a bare-bones FidoNet messaging center with no apparent games and no local message activity to speak of. It was a Texas ghost town.

FidoNet is the most popular inter-BBS message network, with about 2,500 listed nodes (or connected systems) worldwide. That might be a stretch; recent attempts to verify that number by actually connecting to the services have come far short of 2,500. It’s more likely that 100 to 150 are still active. It’s a long fall from FidoNet’s peak in 1995, at over 35,000 nodes.

A few BBSes still pass along networked messages the old way, by doing dial-up call-outs to other BBSes multiple times a day, trading packets of emails and message posts like ships handing off mail bags when they reach a port. Brazos Valley Hub seems to be one of these systems—a true digital island touched only indirectly by the internet.

Intrigued, I left a message for the sysop, Mike Luther. No response. I called again and left my phone number. About an hour later, my phone rang: “Caller ID Blocked.”

It was Luther. He spent most of our hour-long conversation talking about things like Area 51 and the Mafia. They reflect the colorful nature of some of the BBS holdouts. In part of our conversation, Luther described the activities of Adolf Hitler and how they related to Texas. I had to ask: “Did Hitler ever use a BBS?” Luther replied, “I don’t know.”

This veteran sysop was born in 1939 and has been using computers as long as he can remember. He says his father once led the math department at Texas A&M University, which is located in College Station. Today, Luther runs his BBS out of the small house where his dad once lived, and he does so out of a sense of obligation to provide a dial-up avenue to FidoNet that is—supposedly—free of government surveillance. The BBS as a digital bunker for the age after privacy on the internet.

Eventually, Luther expressed grave concern for my safety given his complex life full of dangerous connections, so we exchanged polite goodbyes.

* * *

By day three of my BBS travels, I had dialed about a dozen different numbers, most of which were “no longer in service,” as my modem speaker whined at me. Then I called “Capitol City Online BBS,” in Frankfort, Kentucky. The BBS, whose name I consider to include a typo, has been running non-stop since 1990.

Upon entering this classic system, the user is transported to a kinder, gentler world. Sysop Mike Powell welcomes guests via polite bulletin. Bowing to post-BBS, but pre-Facebook internet custom, Powell does not demand real names, phone numbers, or mailing addresses.

There, I read several FidoNet echoes (a term for groups of messages by subject), many of which were not very active. I also perused an impressive library of classic files and even tried a few online door games, which provide exploration and adventure rendered in nothing but ASCII characters. But I was mostly interested in talking to the sysop, so I left a message.

By day, Powell works with another obsolete technology. He works as a COBOL developer—a programming language used mostly on legacy systems like mainframes. By night, he sleeps. And every once in a while, he checks on his BBS, which he started in his parents’ house when he was 17 years old. It still operates on a Pentium I machine running IBM’s OS/2 operating system.

When I asked about his user base, Powell spoke of a regular caller of his, 50-something, who downloads a packet of messages every day, dutifully reads all the messages, replies to them, then uploads his package of responses. The caller is using a tool called an offline message reader, which was popular back in the days when bandwidth was low and connection time was limited. It’s not necessary today, but a few holdouts still stick to the habit, says Powell, because it’s what they are comfortable with.

The dial-up line sees one or two callers a week, according to Powell. “Although for the past week, I’ve had a few extra callers for whatever reason.” (That reason is me.)

But why do they still use dial-up? “A lot of people will leave a message and say, ‘Thanks for having the board up. I was able to hook up my old VIC-20 and test it out,’” says Powell. “So there are people who have a nostalgia thing going where they’re trying to test out their old computers. Or they haven’t seen a BBS in forever, and they’re shocked to find one.” Nostalgia is where obsolescence comes home to roost.

* * *

Ten years ago, when I dipped back into BBSes, I still got a sense that many sysops ran them to provide a libertarian alternative to the internet. Among them, the unoppressed who wanted religious freedom, the unsurveilled who wanted freedom from surveillance, and those prepping for the day when BBSes would provide shelter after the internet came crashing down.

Today, those sentiments are much more unusual in the BBS community. In 2016, calling a BBS mostly means reliving glory days long past: 1990s technology as comfort food, nourishing the fragile soul with a slow drip of information at a rate that old-timers actually can comprehend.

After I finished my dial-up rounds, I emailed a half dozen modern Telnet BBS sysops and asked them why they do it. All of them referenced nostalgia, and some mentioned preserving history. One of them hadn’t run a BBS at all back in the technology’s heyday; he just wanted to see what he had missed.

Quite a bit, it turns out. Those who didn’t live through or participate in the BBS era likely equate being online with hyper-connectedness, which feels more and more like a corporate-sponsored illusion every day. Those users missed out on the elemental intimacy of the BBS. It was messy, it was personal, and it was profound.

All of which might explain that persistent dream I’ve been having. Three years ago my father died, and he started visiting me in my dreams, too. Often he is a welcome sight, but sometimes it’s uncanny: “Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” The BBS had an impact on me as a teenager, one as profound as a parent’s. To remember it is to remember how I came to be me, not just an activity I pursued long ago.

Like the visits from my father, the BBS carries a message of hope tinged with confusion. It isn’t gone after all. The BBS era didn’t really end. It still lives on inside me, somewhere. Thanks to dedicated sysops like Luther and Powell, future generations may be able to continue exploring their Pompeii. But like anything lost to time, the BBS’s future callers won’t be able to feel the emotions attached to the ash.