Bulletin Board Systems
Those BBS Days

Featuring Ward Christensen

In January of 1978, Chicago was hit with a blizzard, which dumped record amounts of snow throughout the midwest. Among those caught in it were Christensen and Randy Suess, who were members of CACHE, the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists' Exchange. They had met at that computer club in the mid 1970s and become friends.

Ward Christensen had created a file transfer protocol for sending binary computer files through modem connections, which was called, simply, MODEM. Later improvements to the program motivated a name change into the now familiar XMODEM. The success of this project encouraged further experiments. Christensen and Suess became enamored of the idea of creating a computerized answering machine and message center, which would allow members to call in with their then-new modems and leave announcements for upcoming meetings.

Ward Christensen

However, they needed some quiet time to set aside for such a project, and the blizzard gave them that time. Christensen worked on the software and Suess cobbled together an S-100 computer to put the program on. They had a working version within two weeks, but claimed soon afterwards that it had taken four so that it wouldn't seem like a "rushed" project. Time and tradition have settled that date to be February 16, 1978.

Because the Internet was still small and not available to most computer users, users had to dial CBBS directly using a modem. Also because the CBBS hardware and software supported only a single modem for most of its existence, users had to take turns accessing the system, each hanging up when done to let someone else have access. Despite these limitations, the system was seen as very useful, and ran for many years and inspired the creation of many other bulletin board systems.

Popular Electronics magazine featured a microcomputer kit project, the Altair 8800 on their front cover. Looking like a minicomputer of the period replete with lots of front panel switches, this really kicked off the microcomputer revolution. There had been a kit computer offered by RadioElectronics magazine in October of 1974 boasting the Intel 8008 chip, but it lacked the far greater instruction set of the newer Intel 8080 and was a collection of stacked circuit boards and a bird's nest of cables.

A small company in Albuquerque (Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems, MITS) was offering the Altair kit for $399.00 including the 8080 microprocessor chip, hoping to sell 200.500 through Popular Electronics and thus avoid bankruptcy. Their sales of calculator kits had been dropping as the ready­made Japanese calculators were hitting the stores. To their astonishment, they had orders in house for 2000 kits by April 1975! There was an amazing market in the country for people who wanted to own their own computer.

Compared to today's PCs, the Altair was primitive: it had 4K of static memory, 25 front panel switches for programming the computer in machine language (binary), 36 LED indicator lights to display the results of any computation and that was all. No keyboard, no monitor, no floppy disks and no operating system (DOS) . Naturally, everyone wanted to get their computers beyond this stage. Any information about solving construction problems with the Altair, software for the Altair, in short anything related to computers was in great demand.

By the summer of `75, the obvious answer to the quest for information was a computer club so Bob Schwartz circulated a notice to the effect that" Anyone interested in forming a computer club should meet at Northwestern University". A crowd of about two to three hundred people attended, agreed to meet again, and began what is now known as the Chicago Area Computer
Hobbyist Exchange (CACHE). This was indeed an appropriate name for the club as everyone had to build their own computer in those days and all wanted to exchange information, hardware, and software. The club flourished, meeting on the third Sunday of each month; first at Northwestern, and later at a variety of schools and colleges. Our present meetings are held at the Levy Senior Center, 2019 W Lawrence Ave., Chicago, IL.

The format of the meetings was rather informal and informative, however it was soon apparent to the officers of the club that we needed to divide into groups according to brand. At that time we had the Altair, the Apple, the Radio Shack TRS.80, the Sinclair, the Commodore, the Digital Group, the Imsai, the SWTP 6800, and many others. No, the IBM PC wasn't around then and didn't arrive `til August 1981. We called these individual groups SIGs and believe that we were the first to call them by that name. After these SIG meetings, we met in a large group to discuss topics of interest to all.

Another of our `firsts' was the bulletin board established by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess in February of 1978. We think it was the first of its type in the country. Ward is also the father of X.MODEM, the first microcomputer error correcting protocol for modems.

Slowly as the microcomputers evolved, many brand names dropped away and the remaining SIGs are the IBM, WordPerfect, Communications, New Users, Windows, and Technical SIGs.