Hitting the books: what life was like on the internet at 300 bits per second

As troubling as the prospect may sound, our world existed before social media. Those were some interesting times with not a single dimly lit slice of Cheesecake Factory fare to critique, exactly zero epic fail to laugh at and not a single adorable leg bean available to ogle. There weren’t even daily main characters! We lived like low-bandwidth savages, huddled around the soft glow of CRT monitors and our cackling, crackling signal modulators, blissfully unaware of the societal upheaval this newfangled internet would bring.

In his new book The Modern World: A History of Social Mediaauthor and assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, Kevin Driscoll examines the halcyon days of the early Internet — even before AOL Online — when BBS was king, Wi-Fi wasn’t even a household name, and the speed of electronic thinking peaked at 300 baud.

Yale University Press

taken from The Modern World: A History of Social Media by Kevin Driscoll. Published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2022 by Kevin Driscoll. All rights reserved.

In the beginning, the heartbeat of the modern world was beating at a constant rate of 300 bits per second. Streams of binary digits flowed through the telephone network in 7- and 8-bit chunks, or “bytes,” and each byte corresponded to a single character of text. The typical home computer, connected to a fuzzy CRT monitor, could only display about a thousand characters at a time, organized in forty columns and twenty-four rows. At 300 bits per second, or 300 ‘baud’, it took about thirty seconds to fill the entire screen. The text appeared faster than when someone was typing in real time, but it was hardly instantaneous.

In the late 1970s, the speed at which data was moved through dial-up networks followed, a specification published by Ma Bell nearly two decades earlier. Founded in the early 1960s, the AT&T Data-Phone System introduced a reliable technique for two-way communication between machines over consumer-grade telephone lines. Although Data-Phone was initially sold to large corporations to facilitate communication between different offices and a single data processing center, it soon became a de facto standard for commercial timeshare services, online databases and amateur telecom projects. In 1976, Lee Felsenstein of the People’s Computer Company designed a do-it-yourself modem kit that was compatible with the AT&T system for less than $100. And then newer tech companies like Hayes Microcomputer Products in Atlanta and US Robotics in Chicago made modems for the home computer market, they assured consumers of their compatibility with the ‘Bell 103’ standard. Rather than compete for speed, these companies sold hobbyists to “smart” features such as auto-answer, auto-dial, and programmable “remote” modes. A 1980 ad for the US Robotics Phone Link Acoustic Modem emphasized its warranty, diagnostic features, and premium aesthetics: “Sleek…Quiet…Reliable.”

To survive, early PC modem makers had to sell more than modems.

They had to completely sell the value of going online. Today, networking is central to the personal computing experience – can you imagine a laptop without Wi-Fi? — but in the late 1970s, computer owners still didn’t see their machines as communication devices. Contrary to this conventional view, budding modem makers tossed their products as gateways to a fundamentally different form of computing. Like the home computer itself, modems were sold as transformative technologies, consumer electronics with the potential to change your life. Novation, the first mover in this rhetorical game, promised that its iconic black modem, the Cat, would “bind you into the world.” Hayes soon adopted similar language, describing the Micromodem II as a groundbreaking technology that “would open your Apple II to the outside world.” It doesn’t matter that these ‘worlds’ didn’t exist in 1979. Modem marketing evoked a desirable vision of the future, made especially for computer enthusiasts. Instead of driving to an office park or taking the train, modem owners would be the first truly autonomous information workers: telecommuting to meetings, dialing into remote databases, and exchanging files with other “computer people” around the world. According to Novation, the potential uses for a modem like the Cat were “endless.”

In practice, 300 bits per second didn’t seem slow. In fact, the range of online services available to microcomputer owners in 1980 was quite astonishing, given their small number. A Bell-compatible modem such as the Pennywhistle or Novation Cat provided access to searchable databases such as Dialog and Dow Jones, as well as communications services such as CompuServe and The Source. Despite the hype, microcomputers alone can sometimes seem overwhelming to an audience primed for visions of all-powerful, superhuman “world brains.” But, as one Byte contributor told me, the experience of using an online “information retrieval service” felt like consulting an electronic oracle. The oracle accepted questions on just about any subject – “from aardvarks to zymurgy” – and the answers seemed immediate. “What’s Your Time Worth?” asked another Byte writer, comparing the size and speed of an online database to a “well-stocked public library.” Furthermore, exploring electronic databases was fun. A Dialog representative likened searching his system to an “adventure” and joked that it was “much less frustrating” than the computer game of the same name. In fact, many early modem owners came to believe that retrieving information online would be the killer app propelling computer ownership into the mainstream.

Yet it was not access to other machines, but access to other people that ultimately led to the adoption of telephone modems among microcomputer owners. Just as email created a sense of community among ARPANET researchers and timesharing brought thousands of Minnesota teachers and students together, dial-up modems helped catalyze a growing network of microcomputer enthusiasts. While timeshare network users tended to access a central computer through a “dumb” terminal, microcomputer network users often found themselves typing on a microcomputer. In other words, there was a symmetry between the users and hosts of microcomputer networks. The same device — a microcomputer and modem — that was used to dial into a BBS can be reused to host one. Microcomputers were more expensive than simple terminals, but they were much cheaper than the minicomputers used in today’s timeshare environments.

Like many fans and enthusiasts, computer hobbyists were eager to connect with others who shared their passion for hands-on technology. News and information about telephone networks was disseminated through the pre-existing network of regional computer clubs, trade shows, newsletters and magazines. In early 1979, a first wave of modem owners gathered on bulletin board systems such as CBBS in Chicago and ABBS in San Diego to talk about their hobby. In a 1981 article for InfoWorld, Craig Vaughan, creator of ABBS, described these early years as an awakening: “Suddenly everyone was talking about modems, what they’d read on this and that bulletin board, or any of the alternatives to Ma Bell. .. was most reliable for long distance data communication.” By 1982 there were hundreds of BBSs across North America, and the topics of discussion grew beyond the computer hobby itself.Vaughan compared the participatory culture of BBSs to amateur radio and argued that modems transformed the computer from a business tool into a medium for personal use. expression Slow connection speeds have not slowed the spread of the modem world.

True to the original metaphor of the “computerized bulletin board,” all early BBSs provided two core functions: read old messages or post a new message. At this elaborate stage, the distinction between ‘files’ and ‘messages’ can be rather vague. In a 1983 instruction book for BBS software developers, Lary Myers described three types of files that are accessible to users: messages, bulletins, and downloads. Although all three were stored and sent as strings of ASCII characters, Myers distinguished “the message file” as the defining feature of the BBS. The message file was available around the clock, providing an ‘electronic bulletin board’ for the caller community: a place to post announcements, questions or comments ‘for the good of all’. Myers’ sample routine, written in BASIC, identified each message with a unique number and stored all messages on the system in one randomly accessible file. A comment in Myers’ code suggested that eighty messages would be a reasonable maximum for systems running on a TRS-80. A caller to such a system asked to type messages by typing numbers on their keyboard, and the system extracted the corresponding string of characters from the message file. New messages were added to the end of the message file and when the maximum number of messages was reached, the system simply overwritten the old ones. Like bulletin board flyers, messages on a BBS were not expected to last forever.

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