Reprinted with permission.
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Worldwide computing with no 'Net
Before blogs, before Web pages, before news groups - even before the Internet itself - there was the dial-up BBS.
Short for Bulletin Board System, it began the age of personal computer messaging and file sharing. And it was open to anyone with enthusiasm, a personal computer and a telephone.
Using a newly available personal computer modem, your PC could place a phone call to a BBS host PC, and you could read and leave mail messages, play games and download files.
In its heyday, there were more than 340 BBSs in the 413 Area Code alone. (For a listing, log on to bbslist.textfiles.com/413/413.txt).
Although many BBSs were created by and for computer hobbyists, any community of interest could make a home on the system.
If you participated, you were a plain old user; if you ran one, you were a system operator, or Sysop. Matthew de Jongh, president and founder of the spa! internet, was an early Sysop.
Starting with one modem and one computer, de Jongh offered users 20 minutes at a time for free. "If you gave money, you could be on an hour a day," he said.
Many BBSs required the Sysop's OK to log on. "I thought everyone should be able to get on," he said. So Springfield Public Access - eventually the spa! - was born. "Before I knew it I had 32 phone lines, and then 64," he said.
Users focused on the big four: files, messages, games and chat, he said.
Today, it sounds simple. It wasn't.
Mort Sternheim is a retired UMass-Amherst physics professor, who with his wife Helen has pioneered a number of important computer-related projects in Western Massachusetts.
Among other things, they created - and still operate - the UMass K-12 Internet access program that has put thousands of teachers online. That program grew out of their Physics Forum BBS.
Mort Sternheim remembers those early days of 300-baud modems and computers with no hard drives.
The Sysops would load files and mail onto their computers and dial into other computers to share them and get more.
There was an international registration program for BBS, called FidoNet, which still exists (www.fidonet.org). It was, Sternheim said, named after the original programmer's computer, which was "a real dog."
There were rules for FidoNet members concerning software and protocols. They included a requirement "not to be excessively annoying," Sternheim recalled.
The pre-Windows screens offered three or four lines of text only, and the early PCs could do just one thing at a time.
"At 3 a.m., all the FidoNet boards would stop dealing with humans and exchange the mail," Sternheim said. "Everyday you got stuff and delivered it to the guy downstream."
Why 3 a.m.? That's when the phone rates were cheap.
De Jongh remembers Sternheim, from his base at UMass, would download tons of files. Sysops throughout the region would in turn dial into UMass and grab some for their BBSs. Occasionally, they would "chip in for long-distance," de Jongh said.
It was worldwide in reach, but very local.
The spa! had a members' lunch every three months or so, de Jongh said. "We'd get 50 to 80 people. They'd meet in person, but they'd already met online.
"I know of at least five couples who got married to people they met on bulletin boards," de Jongh said.
Angus "Terry" Dun is technology coordinator at Franklin County Technical School in Turners Falls. He has known and worked with Sternheim in various projects since the early days.
Dun was instrumental in creating SpaceMet, a BBS that, among many other things, gave teachers access to information and ways to communicate about middle school science.
"We were basically training teachers in the use of technology, as well as how to integrate it into their educational practice," he said.
There were about 12,000 users at one point, with local phone numbers in Boston, Worcester, Westfield and the Berkshires.
"We went so far at to have regular training sessions down at the University on Saturdays," he said.
Like the other pioneers, Dun started modestly, with "one PC and four telephone lines into the house."
A remarkable number of the early BBS Sysops and their helpers went on to related careers, Sternheim said.
He can name dozens, many of whom passed through UMass as students or were interns from area high schools. "The real heroes are some of the brilliant kids who did technical work for me," he said.
Today, the BBS system is all but a memory. In Internet years, FidoNet is indeed an old dog, but De Jongh and Sternheim miss the elegance of the early programming.
Although taken for granted today, today, Sternheim recalls the "incredibly smart software" that automated many of the BBS tasks.
De Jongh puts it this way: "I would give almost anything to have the functionality I had then - and without hiring a programmer."
Larry Rivais can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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