Sunday, March 16, 2008

Computing in the Elder Daze

I was trading comments with a couple of twenty-somethings on a blog the other day and I got started thinking about emoticons. You know, the little sideways faces drawn with punctuation. :) It occurred to me that most twenty-somethings probably think they invented the dern things, and even find it amusing that an Old Guy like me would try to use them. They would be surprised to learn, I suspect, that emoticons have been around for about as long as they have! :0

Yes, my young friends, emoticons date back to the days of the Bulletin Board System (BBS). Do you even know what a BBS is? Now I shall engage in the favorite pastime of Old Guys. I shall reminisce.

Back in the late seventies, long before anyone outside of a university computer lab had ever heard of the Internet, personal computer owners began communicating with each other via modem using bulletin boards. Some generous soul would dedicate a phone line and a personal computer to the purpose, often paying for it out of their own pocket. That person would be called the SysOp (system operator). The BBS computer ran special software that allowed anyone with a computer and a modem to dial in and post messages to the board. Then someone else would dial in, read the messages that had been posted, and post their replies. It was exactly like an online forum today, except it ran on a single dedicated computer and (get this!) only one person could be connected at a time. (As personal computers became more powerful, some of the larger and more popular boards would have more than one phone line. But most only had one.)

In 1982 I bought an Apple II computer and began to write software for it for fun. I joined the Houston Area Apple Users Group. They ran a single phone line BBS for members. It was quite popular for several years. That meant that in the prime evening hours the phone line was almost continually busy. So here’s how it went. I would sit down at my computer in the evening, fire up my terminal emulator program and set up my modem to begin autodialing the BBS over and over. Eventually it would get a ring instead of a busy signal, and my machine would beep to let me know I was connected. I would log in and read all the messages everyone had posted since my last login. Then I would reply to several of them and disconnect. A while later I would start the autodialer again to get back on the BBS and see if anyone had replied to my messages.

My first modem was 300 baud. That meant it could only communicate at 30 characters per second. I could actually read the text as it scrolled by. Later I got a 1200 baud modem and I thought it was wonderfully fast. Too fast to read! Wow. For comparison, if you connect to the Internet today with a cable modem it’s roughly equivalent to something like 3,000,000 baud, give or take a couple of million.

I don’t actually recall when I first encountered emoticons. I’m not sure I ever saw them on a BBS. For sure, though, I remember them from the early nineties. The company I worked for first connected to the Internet around 1994 and I remember using emoticons in e-mail very early on. You gotta remember, it was actually us Old Guys that invented all this Internet stuff. I mean, Al Gore is an Old Guy, right? :)

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