What does BBS mean, or bulletin board system?

What does BBS mean? In the 1980s and early 1990s, before the Internet was available for home use, hobbyists would set up a computer with a modem on a phone line to see who would call in. In some cases, hundreds of people did. Here’s a look back at the days of the BBS, or bulletin board system, and what people did with their modems in days of yore.

How a bulletin board system worked

What does BBS mean, or bulletin board system?
This is the bulletin board system Amiexpress running on a Commodore Amiga computer. As you can see from its menus, this bulletin board offered message boards and file transfers. Image credit: Coderman/Wikipedia

At its heart, a bulletin board system was a computer with a modem, connected over a phone line. You logged in, or created an account if you didn’t have one. Once connected, you could read and reply to message boards, download software, play simple games, and exchange private messages with other users, an early form of e-mail.

Since it worked over the phone line, only one person could use the system at a time. Everything was text-based, but some standards existed for transmitting color and symbols, which led to some creative text-based graphics.

Bulletin board software was available for almost any popular computer that was capable of connecting to a modem. Commodore 64s were a popular choice because they were cheap. But plenty of people ran bulletin boards on other brands of computers, including Radio Shack TRS-80s, Apple IIs, Ataris, Amigas, and IBM PCs. IBM PCs were another popular choice, because you could get an inexpensive PC clone with a hard drive and have lots of storage for downloads. The owner/operator of a bulletin board was called a systems operator, or sysop for short.

The cost of being a sysop

What does BBS mean, or bulletin board system?
This US Robotics Dual Standard modem was the modem to have for running a bulletin board system in the early 1990s, as it could communicate with competing standard modems at full speed. Unfortunately it cost about $450. Image credit: Bortzmeyer/Wikipedia

Running a BBS was an expensive hobby. It needed a dedicated phone line, which cost $20 a month, as well as a dedicated computer and modem and software. An entry-level setup might consist of a Commodore 64, a couple of disk drives, a 1200-bps modem, and a cheap TV for a monitor. It wasn’t easy to get started for less than $500, even if you managed to score some used equipment.

Running a really nice bulletin board system required a pretty significant investment. Many sysops used their old computer for their BBS after buying a new computer for their own use. Some St. Louis-area sysops had elaborate setups with more than $2,000 worth of equipment dedicated to it, between the computer, a high-capacity hard drive, and a high-speed modem.

The best BBSs were part of networks. This wasn’t networking in the modern sense of computer networking, but during off hours, BBSs would call each other and sync up messages. Thanks to a St. Louis-area BBS that was part of a large network, I made friends as far away as Ontario.

Running a good BBS could make you popular, because it gave people a similar experience to services like Compuserve, if on a smaller scale, and it didn’t cost $40 an hour to use.

Using bulletin board systems

Calling into bulletin board systems was a slightly less expensive hobby. Modems weren’t cheap, but at least you could use your regular computer and phone line to do it. The trick was knowing a number to call after you got the modem. The modem often came with a list of BBSs to call, but chances were they would be long distance. Having a friend who knew the numbers for one or more local boards certainly helped. The modem also came with terminal software, which controlled the modem and let you communicate with the BBS.

Most BBSs had lists of other local BBSs, so finding the first one was always the hardest. You could store the phone numbers in your terminal program so you didn’t have to memorize them. Since only one person could call in at a time, the best terminal programs had a redial feature that would hang up if it sensed a busy signal, wait a few seconds, and then try again. With enough patience, you could get in.

Making the BBS rounds

BBS regulars like me had a routine. I had a list of boards I called regularly. I’d load my terminal program and try BBSs on my list until I found one that wasn’t busy. I’d read the message boards to see what people were talking about, then head over to the files section and see if anyone had uploaded anything interesting. Officially it was all public domain and shareware software that was legal to copy. Most BBSs had a section for pirated software too. Sometimes you had to ask the sysop for access. Some BBSs didn’t have any pirated software, and asking the sysop for access would get you a lecture.

After you read a few messages, played your daily rounds on the BBS’s online games, and downloaded something, you logged off and moved on to the next board.

If it seems primitive by today’s standards, it was. But all of the elements of social networking were there. It made the world a smaller place, and gave a glimpse of the future. For many people, BBSs were a key part of the 1980s computing experience.

What does BBS mean, in conclusion

The days of the bulletin board system didn’t end abruptly. The Internet of the mid 1990s was flashy, but rather spotty on content. There was a lot on private BBSs that you couldn’t find on the Internet right away. So for a time, old and new coexisted, and BBSs even enjoyed a bit of a boom as modems became more affordable. But by the late 1990s, the bulletin board was rather passe. A brave few retro hobbyists run bulletin board systems on old hardware and make it accessible via telnet for nostalgia’s sake.

That said, even though the bulletin boards of the 80s and 90s are mostly gone now, their legacy lives on in Internet-based forums. And in many ways, social networks of today resemble the old bulletin boards, with message boards and games, just on a larger and more ambitious scale.

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