The Origin of Computer Bulletin Boards
[Written in 1993]
Today there are tens of thousands of Computer Bulletin Boards
around the world but not so long ago, there were none. When did they
begin, and who was the first system operator to set one up?
During a meeting of BBS industry folk in 1993 named the 2nd
Annual ONE BBSCON, the host had everyone in the room stand up. Then
he asked those who did not run a BBS to sit. Then those who didn't
have a Board in 1992. Then 1991, 1990, and so forth year by year. With each year, fewer were standing.
When he reached 1978 only one person was still on his feet.
As he stood there alone the host said, "Folks, meet Ward Christensen."
The first BBS officially came into being February 16, 1978, in
Chicago. It wasn't called a BBS. The name was CBBS, and for a time
people wondered what that stood for. Christensen's Bulletin Board
System? Chicago Bulletin Board System? Ward says it meant
Computerized Bulletin Board System and all the early Boards were
termed a CBBS until the C was eventually dropped.
Ward had been a college physics major and programmed
mainframes for IBM. His real interest was electronics and computer
goodies, such as they were in the 70s. Modems? There was the Hayes
MicroModem 100. Computers? His first BBS ran on an S-100 computer
with 64k RAM and two single-sided 8" diskettes each holding 250k.
He and a friend, Randy Suess, had toyed with the possibility
of creating an electronic bulletin board where people could stick up messages, and 1978
seemed a good time. Mass production and sales had brought prices on
computer items down to reasonable levels and telcos were ending
the practice of charging for data boxes or requiring registration of
Randy put the hardware together. Ward wrote the BBS software
in 8080 assembler and served as the system operator, a term quickly
shortened to sysop. It took exactly a month from deciding to do it to
Did Ward have any good ideas in that maiden software? Better
believe it; we're still using his 1978 commands today and probably
Today's (R)ead a message was (R)etrieve a message then, same
thing. S, which we call (S)can, Ward called (S)ummary and that also
did the same then as now. E was (E)nter Messages and still is, K
still (K)ills them, B brings today's (B)ulletins just as it brought up
Ward's, and G is still (G)oodbye. Ward had on-line help and even that
very first BBS had an Expert mode.
CBBS had on-line games (on floppies!) and like sysops today,
Ward had traces of his personality on the Board. If callers used
words Ward didn't approve of the software recognized it and the caller
was logged out. Same thing if too many unproductive keystrokes were
Ward's BBS can still be found in operation from time to time.
When last I checked it was called The Ward Board, still in Chicago.
The number was 312-545-8086.
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