Geek Trivia: Board to tears

How long did it take Randy Suess and Ward Christensen to develop CBBS, and why did they say it took longer?

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Attention anyone who has ever participated in an online forum, blog, message board, or chat room: February 16 officially marks the 27th anniversary of the technological ancestor of every subsequent form of online conversational interaction—CBBS.

On Feb. 16, 1978, the Computerized Bulletin Board System was born, making it possible for the 300-baud-modem-powered computers of the day to post messages and exchange software online, laying the groundwork for all the flame wars and freeware flings that have defined the computerized decades ever since.

CBBS was the brainchild of Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, two members of CACHE, the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists' Exchange. The duo had long wished to create, for lack of a better term, a computerized answering machine.

Inspired by the Hayes MicroModem 100, Suess and Christensen wanted a hardware/software combo that would let computers leave modem-conveyed messages for other computers, just as answering machines let people leave phone-conveyed messages for other people.

The only problem: Other than the modem, neither the hardware nor the software existed to meet the specifications Suess and Christensen had in mind. Building their "answering machine" would require soldering together the modem circuitry from scratch, writing their own custom BIOS codes for the ad-hoc hardware, and then coding the entire user interface software themselves. This laundry list of activities was going to take a relatively significant time investment, even with Suess and Christensen working in tandem.

Luckily (if you want to call it that), Chicago suffered through a record blizzard in January 1978, trapping Suess and Christensen indoors for an extended period of time. Recognizing the opportunity, the duo used their mutual time off to develop the CBBS technology.

After an ostensible month-long project, the CBBS system debuted in February 1978. It was an impressive achievement under any circumstances, even more so considering the secret that Suess and Christensen kept during the CBBS debut.

In fact, the project had taken far less time than the one-month incubation period that Suess and Christensen professed. The pair had actually developed CBBS faster than they had claimed.


How long did it actually take Ward Christensen and Randy Suess to develop the Computerized Bulletin Board System (CBBS) they devised 27 years ago, and why did the duo lead users to believe it took much longer?

Suess and Christensen built the CBBS hardware and software package—at home, from scratch—in two weeks, not the four they originally claimed. They told the world it took a month so that early computer enthusiasts would trust the fledgling technology and not consider it a rushed job.

Despite Christensen's well-deserved accolades for his development of the XMODEM file transfer protocol, few would have believed that he or anyone else could have dreamt up and delivered CBBS in just a fortnight. So, while February 16 is CBBS' official birthday, it came to life about two weeks earlier—born of boredom, a blizzard, and a bushel of spare parts.

Today, the specifications may seem less than impressive (an 8-bit processor, 64 KB of memory, a 173-KB 8-inch floppy disk, and a 300-baud modem) and the usage parameters unbearable (single-user access, text-only interface, five-words-per-second transfer rates, long-distance telephone connection charges for nonlocal users, and forced logoff for idle users). But in 1978, it was enough to start a revolution.

By 1980, Christensen's personal bulletin board, "Ward's Board," boasted more than 10,000 members, and the system remained active until the early 1990s. In the following years, BBS software (over time, users dropped the C as alternate products began to crop up) spread like wildfire, prompting the development of the fondly remembered FidoNet, which linked hundreds of stand-alone BBS groups together.

For old-school technophiles, FidoNet was one of the crucial precursors of the Internet, establishing the basic procedures and etiquette (or lack thereof) for what would become our current incarnation of cyberspace. So, if FidoNet begat the Internet, and CBBS begat Fidonet, then we owe this very column you're reading to two weeks of blizzard-induced free time and a pair of computer geeks with a visionary streak. Now that's some great Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

We turn now to the quibble that wouldn't die. In the Jan. 5 edition of Geek Trivia, "Game over and under," I apparently misused the term decimate. When I highlighted this error for the quibble in the Jan. 26 edition of Geek Trivia, "Wide loads kept low," our community resurrected the issue once again.

TechRepublic member Tom Bentzien quibbled with the quibbler for being so inflexible.

"Didn't anybody explain to them that English is a dynamic language… growing and changing with the passage of time? I'm no kid and decimate in the context you used has been around as long as I can remember."

But another member, Alias KEP, quickly quibbled back.

"I've got no problems with the English language being dynamic in that new words are incorporated, but if you change the meanings of words, then you wind up with people not understanding what other people are saying."

Finally, TechRepublic member Tony K tried to make peace.

"The problem is people now understand decimate to mean destroy. I'm sure that's a much more common usage of the word, and if you were to use the original meaning, you would be the one misunderstood. Having a dynamic language also means being dynamic yourself."

Tell you what, gang: If I promise never to use decimate again, can we agree to stop quibbling about it? I didn't think so.

For more, check out the Geek Trivia Archive.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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