Identity: The Planisphere BBS & Teenagers’ Online Presence
In the early days of the internet, before the invention of the World Wide Web, people communicated through BBSes: a computerized bulletin board system. These systems were created as early as 1978 but kept popularity until the late 1990s. Unlike what Kevin Driscoll refers to as “the best known histories of the internet” that “focus on either the engineers who developed core technologies or the business people who profited from them,” (3) BBSes are a part of internet history surrounding the computer hobbyists, usually the people in society who were considered “off-beat”. BBSes were often, but not all, made by and for groups of minorities who had access to the technology. These were amateurs in technology who often found their way by experimenting. They used their residential phone lines to send data to terminals, technology originally meant solely for phone calls. Users would use a modem and their telephone lines to dial into a BBS terminal, which was, put simply, calling the system operator’s computer. Because of this, BBSes were often confined to their location to avoid high telephone costs. Cities would have local systems. These systems were run by system operators, or sysops, who were often running the BBS out of their own home. Due to the nature of culture surrounding BBSes, most of the history surrounding it is gone. Sysops ran BBSes on their spare time and money, and often archiving was not a priority. BBSes were often forgotten about. Most remnants can be found in magazines and newspapers, ranging from well-known to tech specific.
In 1992, the Baltimore Sun published a short article in the paper on how to dial in to a BBS. At this point, personal computers have gained more popularity and unlike the 1980s, BBSes became more accessible. But users still had to get over the hurdle of knowing how to use a terminal system, especially if you weren’t a computer hobbyist like many of its early users. how-to articles like this could remove the hurdle, detailing how to easily call a BBS. In the Baltimore Sun’s article Robin Stacy explains this in plain terms in a time where more people who had no experience were trying to log on. They explain what computer terms are, “a main menu is usually a combination of things you can do now, such as ask for help, and prompts to go to other menus, for things such as files or messages,” and even general syntax for the systems: “at the prompt, you generally type the first letter or couple of letters of the command you want. If you’re supposed to type something other than the first letter, that’s usually made clear, as the “x” in eXit or DOors for doors.”
Once you know the basics, how do you know what computer to call? Well, back then, you could easily find magazines such as Boardwatch Magazine dedicated to technology and publishing lists of dialable BBS numbers. In the April/May 1994 edition, you can find a list of 251 BBSes operating out of the Baltimore Metropolitan area at that time. It’s here we can find an interesting BBS listed: titled simply Planisphere and with the number 410-256-2584. No sysop is listed, unlike majority of the rest. This BBS was likely a simple, run of the mill BBS with the usual message boards and games. It was up and running for only 2 years, 1993-1995. However, surprisingly enough, it was run by an 8th grader at the time who calls himself Iggy. Not much information on the Planisphere was left behind, a great example of the minimal trail that often exists today for BBSes. You can only find the number and name cross listed on Boardwatch, the textfiles.com BBS list archive, and a wiki on the game Trade Wars. Despite this little trail, we can gather much about who would frequent the system.
In a note on the textfiles.com BBS list from the sysop, Iggy, he describes that he made the Planisphere after his friend’s BBS, The Post Larval, failed. No information on his friend’s system could be found for this article. Iggy was experienced; he went on to also run a “PlaNET network of WWIV BBSes” that became a national network for emails and message boards, which unfortunately could also not be found remaining online for this article. Interestingly enough, as previously mentioned, you can also find this BBS listed on a Trade Wars wiki under “Maryland Game Sites.” From this we can gather that it hosted a version of the space themed RPG. This makes sense, given the astronomy related name and Trade Wars being a space-themed early video game.
Trade Wars was a multiplayer game focused on trading, strategy, but also action. It was heavily based on the board games Hunt the Wumpus and Risk as well as the original star trading game fittingly named Star Trader. BBSes often hosted games like this, and with the knowledge that it was operated by a young teen out of his home, it’s likely that the Planisphere was a place that teens went to connect with other teens interested in space and gaming. They’d have to have general knowledge of BBSes enough to log on as well as Trade Wars strategies if they participated in the game with Iggy and his friends. It’s places like these that notably started the stereotype of the tech-savvy teen in 1983 (Driscoll 16).
This BBS would be very notably different from what earlier or older sysops were making, like Ward Christensen and Randy Seuss’s first BBS for the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyist Exchange (Driscoll 29). BBSes like Christensen and Suess’s would be for clubs and adults who met often to discuss what went on online and offline. It wasn’t completely formal—but it’s important to note the Planisphere, being run by a teen, would have had a completely different, perhaps even more informal, vibe and regulations surrounding it. We could imagine Planisphere being used for Iggy to connect with other teens after and outside of school, a simple and fun activity to do once they were done their homework.
There were many BBSes for many demographics existing from the 1980s to 1990s, the Planisphere showing us just one piece of this vast history lost to time, and what teens in the 90s could have been up to.
“410 Area Code BBSes Through History.” The TEXTFILES.COM BBS List. Accessed September 28, 2022. http://bbslist.textfiles.com/.
Blase, Bob. “List of 251 Electronic Bulletin Boards.” Boardwatch Magazine, April/May 1992.
Driscoll, Kevin. The Modem World. 2022.
“The Planisphere BBS.” TradeWars Museum. Accessed September 28, 2022. http://wiki.classictw.com/index.php/GameSite:The_Planisphere_BBS.
Stacy, Robin. “Good Connection a BBS Hookup Can Be Fun and Profitable.” Baltimore Sun, March 9, 1992. https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1992-03-09-1992069048-story.html.