Online Messaging Systems of Yesteryear

Originally published at: Online Messaging Systems of Yesteryear - TidBITS

Want to wax nostalgic? This history of online messaging system is sure to trigger some memories of when the Internet was a smaller, kinder place.


Ah! GEnie! Who remembers the Apple II forum there?

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My low expectations for this Condé-Nast publication were not exceeded. The article started well with the PLATO IV system, and failed to mention its most relevant feature: Talkomatic. It was awesome, it was not just live messaging, it was live typing, you could see the message typed out letter by letter and backspaces for corrections.

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I never had an opportunity to use the PLATO system, but in college we used Micro-PLATO (a stripped-down subset suitable for running on PCs) for physics class assignments.

My first “messaging system” was on BBS’s, starting from when I started college in 1987. Of course, long distance calls were not free at the time, so I only called local boards. Quite a lot of the ones I called into were running 2-AM BBS. I even ran a copy of their shareware release on a PC without a hard drive (which really ticked off the authors because I was violating their system requirements). But two 1.44M floppies was plenty for a small board as long as you don’t have a files section.

The other really popular BBS software at the time was WWIV. Which appears to still exist, as a system that can be hosted on an Internet-facing server (via Telnet access).

I was also a big user of USENET, starting from when I got my first UNIX login (ca. 1989). And I kept on using it until Verizon turned off their servers due to lack of interest (some time in the early 2000’s, I believe). Sadly, there has been nothing like it since then. Messaging has fractured into thousands of topic-specific systems and a few big social networks, instead of one giant firehose to drink from and well-written client software to comfortably navigate it.

But this article, sadly, skips over a lot of other very significant systems.

Like the proliferation of dial-up commercial messaging systems. CompuServe, The Source, Prodigy and even AOL. These were all incredibly popular for many years before they all became glorified Internet service providers.


Hmmm. My first experience with online messaging was early 1980 (or maybe late 1979) with CBBS, running on an Altair 8800 and based out of Jim Willing’s place in Beaverton. Jim made me co-sysop sometime in 1980 after I got a Potomac Micro-Magic 600 baud S100 board for my North Star Horizon.

I got a Usenet account through the Oregon Graduate Institute in 1981 because I kept showing up for their public lectures. But when I got a job with Rising Star Industries as the Tools Group Leader building the R4TH Forth development system for the Epson QX-10, I got onto Compuserve with the handle 71716,422 (I’m amazed I still remember that). I never gave up on Usenet, but because it was long distance to The Well in SFO when I was living in Idyllwild, I didn’t use it much.

In 1990, I was invited as a Guest Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Zimbabwe (a story for a different time) and I was horrified that there was no Internet access or any public access to any online messaging system, so I worked with the German Liberal Party that had offices in Harare with multiple lines and I set up a Fidonet system that connected early in the morning with a university in Capetown (IIRC) and from there onto the ARPAnet mail system (using elm, if memory serves), archie, veronica, and whatnot.

In 1991, I came home to Portland and a sysop friend at OGI invited me over and I saw Mosaic for the first time - there were probably less than a hundred websites globally then. Then around 1993, AOL dumped its users onto the Internet and there was great weeping and moaning and gnashing of teeth about how that would ruin it for the rest of us. I ended up getting a RAINet account and dropping AOL, Compuserve, and The Well and went back to Usenet for most everything.

Lots more, but thanks for the excuse to stroll down memory lane.



Usenet was a lifesaver for me in the old days. It provided so much info on topics I was interested in. Email lists were also important, especially the PowerBook list. I actually met and “talked” with Steve Wozniak on that list!! Those olden days are gone but not forgotten at all by me.

eWorld was one of my most enjoyable online experiences, and I was so sad to see it go.



My first experience with any sort of online communication (pre Internet) was via a local Mac Club bulletin board running on TeleFinder.
Amazingly, there is still a Telefinder page on the web although it was last updated in 2016 and TF never made its way to OSX.

I went with GEnie. It was cheaper than CompuServe, and it had a local access phone number in my area before CompuServe did. Main problem was getting my friends to join. I went from a 300 baud modem to a 56k baud modem on GEnie, and then DSL came to pass. WOW! 760Kbps! Always on! First Mosaic and then Netscape. No more Gopher! No more GEnie! Hog heaven!

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FidoNet was so much fun but getting online with a new Macintosh Plus wasn’t easy because it used the obscure Mini-DIN connector for its serial ports.

I had to build my own RS-232 modem cable. The wire, a DB25 connector, solder, and a soldering iron were easy to find at my local RadioShack. But finding a Mini-DIN connector and a pinout diagram was nearly impossible at that time. The cable was ugly but it worked!

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I spent a lot of time on The WELL in the early 90s. I poked around on Usenet but I don’t remember being too invested in it.

I was in grad school in 1987 and received a 300 baud modem card for the Commodore 64 computer that was churning out all the papers I had to write. (Quick Brown Fox, anyone?) I joined CompuServe because there was an offer in the modem box. I later went to a parking lot in Cambridge and purchased a used 1200 baud modem from A Guy for $80, cash. (Nothing bad happened, it was Boston in the 1980s.)

It was fascinating to see text trickling onto my screen from the outside world. Under the job number 72177,1520 I kept that account until the late 1990s, and at one point was a sysop for a Mac help forum on CIS.

I moved on before CompuServe did, dallying in AOL for a little while to host early web sites before I found out I didn’t have to do that. But CIS was really deep and satisfying, and none of my messages from that time are accessible to me in any way, shape or form. That I know of.

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I found a BBS program for the old Mac written in BASIC called “Carnival” that I learned to revise (with no programming experience at all!) and set up as a “public” system called “The Search System” that people could access. (I was young, dumb, and only had a single modem for one incoming user at a time, but I was in my own personal heaven!) This would have been about 1983. I’m enjoying the comments about that technological world of olde!

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I was using Prodigy. Not for any technical reason but because they didn’t require a credit card. I was a college student at the time and didn’t have a card. But Prodigy would send me an invoice every month, which I paid by mailing them a check.

I started with a 1200 bps modem. Then 2400. Then 14.4K, then 56K. Then 128K SDSL (provided free by my employer), then ADSL at (I think) 384K. Then FiOS at 25/25M, and today a cable modem at 300/20M.

I still have the 56K modem. I never plan to go back to dial-up, but part of me thinks that its ability to send and receive faxes might someday be useful. Of course, I’ve never done that and most businesses today are willing to exchange scans via e-mail, so it will probably just stay in its box forever.

Back in the BBS days, 1200 bps was perfect. It was slow enough that I could read the text as it arrived, without needing to pause the output. File transfers took a while, but I didn’t do much of that.

It was with the advent of graphical systems (like Prodigy) and the Internet where higher speeds became necessary.

Yeah, your modem progression was exactly the same as mine. I have absolutely no idea where my last US Robotics modem went. Faxes, ugh! I never had a fax machine, but I did a lot of diagnosing and debugging of clients’ machines. Like I said, ugh! For a while, out of necessity, I had fax software on my 68040 and G3 Macs, but I was overjoyed once PDFs and e-mail attachments reached a usable maturity. Just ordered one of the new M4 iPad Pros. Never thought I’d live to see the day. It’s kinda like going to heaven without dying first.

I started with AppleLink - Personal Edition (AL-PE), I got it free when at AppleFest SF 1988 I bought a High Speed Modem of 2400 baud. When Apple bailed on AL-PE, my membership was converted to being a Charter Member of AOL. Later schizophrenic Apple tried to re-enter the market with eWorld, but they failed miserably as people had moved on. I did join eWorld and was sad to see it go; I still have my AOL email account and address.

Do HyperCard and Apple Talk count? Our fearless leader, Adam Engst, covered this in his excellent “Internet Starter Kit.”

And HyperCard and Apple Talk became Manna from heaven at the time it was released in a company I worked for.

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While the rest of the folks I knew seemed satisfied with UPPER CASE and 300 baud modems, I was fortunate to have access to the PLATO system at our high school at the blazing speed of 1200 baud down (and 120? up). The terminals were thanks to the fact that Bill Norris, head of Control Data Corporation sent his kids to the same school, and wanted to see how they might impact education. I was able to communicate with group messaging (think, today’s forums or Discord or Slack) as well as individual person to person messaging with users of PLATO systems around the world!

I went on to get a job (during high school, continuing through college, and beyond) at Control Data working on the PLATO system. Definitely formative!

It spoiled me.

My first modem was an acoustic coupler. 130 baud, if I recall correctly. Moved along through the regular progression of BBS’s and online services others have mentioned, including GEnie, CompuServe, AOL, AppleLink, etc. My one claim to fame (?) from that era was being the moderator of the HyperCard forum on CompuServe for a time.

Kids these days…

I started my online life with an ASR33 teletype and an acoustic-coupled 110 baud modem at my high school. It connected to a PDP-8/e running TSS/8, a timesharing operating system which we had purloined from DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) by walking into a trade show with a sack of DECtapes (swag from a previous show) and distracting the salesperson while we dumped their demo machine’s disk onto our tapes.

At the time, there was no mail system and users could not read or write each other’s files BUT there was only a single directory so you could see everybody else’s file names (in a 6.3 format and, IIRC, it was 6-bit ASCII and the three character extensions were really limited).

I thought a messaging system would be quite cool, so I wrote a program that encoded one or two characters of text, a user ID, and a sequence number into a file name then created the file. Everybody on the system who was running the program could see what everyone else was typing, but it was s.l.o.w. You couldn’t even saturate the 110 baud line. But, hey, we could “talk” to one another ON THE COMPUTER.