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I miss the sound of a modem carrier

“I know this will sound crazy,” my boss said. “But I miss the sound of a modem connecting.”

I don’t think it’s crazy at all. That chirping was the sound of a hard-won victory, at least if you’re of a certain age.

I remember when the Internet was the exclusive domain of universities and the military-industrial complex. Ordinary people like me could get a modem for telecommunications–and that was exactly what we called it back then, no matter what phone and cable companies say today–but for the most part what we dialed into were bulletin board systems, operated by other enthusiasts like us on a spare computer sitting in their basement or a spare bedroom.

The overwhelming majority of these systems had one modem. Most of these enthusiasts were ordinary middle-class people, and phone lines were expensive ($30 or so per month, most likely) and a shoestring BBS tied up $400 worth of computer equipment. Some BBS operators tied up five times that.

So, there was one modem, and at least a few dozen other people who wanted to dial in. A really good BBS might have a hundred or more other people who wanted to dial in.

My first modem, a Commodore 1600 VICmodem, couldn’t dial itself. I had to dial the phone for it, then unplug the handset and plug the modular plug into the back of the modem. I couldn’t win very many races with that.

Eventually I got a Commodore 1670, which could not only dial itself, but could be configured to redial on its own until the modem on the other end picked up. A good terminal program would dial in a loop with a configurable delay in between dials, which I found worked better. It took a while to find a program that did that, but I valued things like that. Others never noticed those things, so my favorite terminal program wasn’t always everyone else’s.

Some of these bulletin boards were networked together, on networks with names like Fidonet, WWIVnet, and WWIVlink, which was a conglomeration of about 200 rebel ex-WWIVnet boards. These were nice, because you could dial into a less busy board and read the messages there.

One Amiga board I used to call, whose name escapes me, had a connection to Usenet. That was my first experience on the Internet, and it probably happened sometime in 1991 or 1992.

I was in college early enough to witness the dawn of the World Wide Web, and the school offered Internet access to students as long as they knew to sign up and knew what to ask for. The university had lots of modems, but word traveled fast, and soon there were more people trying to dial in than there were modems. There may have been a few glorious weeks there toward the beginning when I didn’t hear busy signals, but it wasn’t long before I had to put up with them again. I don’t remember doing this, but I’m sure I tweaked the INI file for Trumpet Winsock to tune it to my modem to try to minimize the length of time the modem was sitting idle, or broadcasting that busy signal.

By the time I was finishing college, everyone was on the Internet, the majority of them used AOL, and AOL wasn’t ready for it. AOL users got busy signals; those of us on good ISPs didn’t. We made fun of AOL.

Then, in the late 90s, DSL became available. Those of us who knew to buy routers, or to load Linux on an old PC and turn it into a router, could stay on the Internet all the time. That was the end of carriers and busy signals.

But senses evoke powerful memories. Lionel trains sound and smell different than they used to; that’s why so many people prefer the old ones.

That’s why I don’t think it’s crazy at all to miss the sound of a modem carrier.



2 thoughts on “I miss the sound of a modem carrier”

  1. Ah, but remember the tail end of the file transfer, say the last two minutes or so, when all of a sudden, out of the speaker, came the unmistakable sounds of someone dialing a handset, and destroying that 45 minute download? 🙂

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