“Couldn’t have been invented on the West Coast” The Origin and Influence of CBBS

Posted by

            Long before the internet, there were systems connecting computers to each other, allowing users to join chat rooms, post and read content, and even play games on a precursor of the world wide web. These systems were called bulletin board systems, or BBS, and they were used through the 1980s into the 1990s in order to connect computers to share information, allow for communication, and provide entertainment. The original BBS were accessible through dial-up connections based on connecting a receiver to a specialized modem, allowing the computers to “talk” to each other and grant access to the system.  The first public BBS was developed in Chicago in 1978 and was able to connect numerous users throughout its lifetime [3]. Other famous BBS include the BBS game Legend of the Red Dragon (one of the most famous BBS games) as well as AfroNet (which was, in fact, a collection of BBS linking Africans and African-Americans through these systems in order for communication and encouragement of conferences and conversation centered around African and African-American themes) and other services which spread information and other content throughout their BBS. The origins of the BBS, however, are humbler and on a smaller scale, being described as “put together with bailing wire and chewing gum” by co-inventor Ward Christensen [2]. However, the effects that this seemingly makeshift creation had on computers, communication, and the world are impossible to understate.

CBBS Welcome Screen circa 1978
Source: http://vintagecomputer.net/cisc367/byte%20nov%201978%20computerized%20BBS%20-%20ward%20christensen.pdf (corrected for color)

            In the year 1978, two computer hobbyists, Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, both members of CACHE (Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists’ Exchange), were discussing ideas for a computer messaging system which would allow people to “talk” with each other through messages. Although both men were interested in the idea and had the means to do it (Christensen was an IBM engineer while Suess was a self-taught computer technician), the idea was simply an idea until the winter of 1978, when a particularly fierce blizzard dropped 3 or 4 feet of snow in the Chicago area, forcing both men inside. Christensen and Suess decided to set the system up and had done so within a few weeks [2]. The system was designed to allow messaging and file transfer between computers in a relatively small area (in the case of Christensen and Suess, parts of the Chicago area). The system was named the Computerized Bulletin Board System and became used by the members of CACHE upon its incorporation by Christensen and Suess. However, the popularity of the system and the concept of bulletin board systems in general exploded. As noted by the New York Times in an article about co-founder Randy Suess, “By the time [Christensen and Suess] retired the system in the 1980s, its single phone line had received more than a half million calls”, marking the influence and scope that this system had. Following the success of CBBS, Suess built a larger network called Chinet (Chicago Network), which used a radio to connect to the fledgling internet which was, as noted by Metz’s NYT article, “so small that he could download the whole thing onto his machine in a single evening”. Suess’s new system had 22 phone lines (compared to the 1 for CBBS) and could field calls from as far away as Australia and Singapore [2]. As the years progressed and the internet rendered the BBS obsolete, both Suess and Christensen parted ways, working on their own individual projects. However, a version of CBBS survives and is still accessible. Upon the death of Suess in 2019, CBBS spread news of his passing and paid tribute to the co-creator of the system which would revolutionize the world and continue to influence it past his death [2].

Christensen with CBBS in 2005 (source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ward_Christensen_and_the_First_BBS_cropped.jpg) from BBS: The Documentary

            The culture and identities surrounding this BBS were not specific to one particular group of people or one particular set of beliefs; in fact, the CBBS is responsible for creating and perpetuating the culture and identities of the groups which used BBS after its creation. The culture of CBBS was built around and the foundation for grassroots movements of various users, from professional software developers to hobbyists and amateurs looking for like-minded people on the internet. The rapid spread of these systems and the example put forward by Christensen and Suess promoting a greater culture of communication and interconnection. As observed by Patrick Kampert in his article “Low-key Pioneer”, “Before you could say [control + alt + delete], the word on Ward and Randy’s innovation had spread across the globe and into the history books”, chronicling the rapid ascent of computers as agents of communication in the world[1]. This innovation by Christensen and Suess ushered in the framework of what we know today as social networks and social media. The framework developed would lead to online forums and message boards (4chan, Reddit, etc.) as well as Twitter and Facebook. However, due to the BBS being a local entity and the users almost certainly interacting without anonymity outside of the BBS, the culture of discourse and communication was also very civil within each system [4]. How wide was the influence of CBBS or, in other words, how many BBS did CBBS influence, begin, or otherwise bring about? According to Jason Scott’s BBS: The Documentary, a minimum of 106,418 BBS were used between 1978 and 2004. As CBBS was the original, this means that over 106,000 BBS were created in the form of one small peer to peer network in Chicago [5]. The cultural impact created by CBBS was unbelievably large compared to its size and origins.  CBBS shaped online culture before the existence of the internet: it created and inspired all people to gather in communes of sorts in order to exchange ideas and communicate with others, and its impact lasts far beyond and after its modem took its last call.

Sources:

  1. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2003-02-16-0302160428-story.html
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/20/technology/randy-suess-dead.html
  3. https://www.techopedia.com/definition/18213/computerized-bulletin-board-system-cbbs
  4. https://thenewstack.io/bulletin-board-systems-social-media-internet/
  5. https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-history/cyberspace/social-medias-dialup-ancestor-the-bulletin-board-system
  6. Featured Image source: BBS: The Documentary screenshot

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s