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Local Directory for Ottawa, ON


The Olden Days of ‘Online’

My old friend Smabulator sent me a link to a review of Canada, by Jeremy Clarkson, a UK columnist who usually writes about cars, but who recently vacationed in the Ottawa area. Here’s an excerpt:

“We’re told that no one in Canada is ever robbed, butchered, stabbed, murdered or blown up by a doctor. And I don’t doubt that all of this is true. But by the same token no one in Canada ever wins on the horses, or escapes from a knife fight with their life, or has an orgasm. It is Switzerland with wheat.” …read more

Smabulator grew up here in Ottawa, and I knew him from the local BBS scene. BBS stands for ‘bulletin board system,’ which was what ‘online’ was before the internet came along. This was before Freenet, before the web, before Google, before spam, before blogs, before any of this. This was the Olden Days.

I got my first computer in 1989. Then I bought a 300 baud modem. I wasn’t even sure what it was for, I just knew I wanted one. I messed around for days trying to get it installed and working properly (something about IRQ coflicts), and finally I got a dial tone.

A 300 baud modem is how we connected online in the late 80s, in conjunction with a phone line. It was replaced by a 1200 baud modem, then a 2400 baud, and so on. There was no such thing as high speed – everything happened at a snail’s pace. It didn’t seem slow at the time, but every time you got a newer and faster modem, man did it feel fast.

A BBS was typically someone else’s home computer. It was like a mini text-based internet on which people had to take turns, because only one person could be connected at a time. Usually there was a one-hour time limit. All of a BBS’s users would live within the same area code, because to call elsewhere meant long distance charges.

Popular BBS’s were busy all the time. I’d set up an auto-dial list of all my favourite BBS’s and tell my modem to keep dialing one after the other until it found one that wasn’t busy. Then my modem and the host modem would do a mating dance and make wonderful screeching noises and that BBS would be mine for an hour. All mine.

Since everything was text-only, the BBSs tended to attract writers. Because that’s what you did on a BBS: you wrote. You socialized in writing, you wrote on message boards, you contributed to collaborative never-ending stories, and you wrote email. (Oh, you could draw pictures too – but it was ascii art, ie art made out of keyboard characters. You wrote art.)

I was known as Dr. Sooze on the BBSs, and I socialized online with people like Crass Nirvana, Flog Sonata, Smabulator, Athena, Painkiller and Mel Pheasant, on systems like The Sanitarium, Another Roadside Attraction and Bob’s Back Room. I wish I could remember more of the names. It was such a long time ago. (Flog reads this blog; maybe he can remember more.)

Each BBS was its own little community. I participated in many, but my favourite was the Sanitarium. (The last time I saw Crass Nirvana, who was the Sanitarium’s sysop, he told me he still had backups of the whole system. If he could find an old computer, he could restore the Sanitarium, and all its discussions, to exactly where it left off all those years ago. It would be like time-warping back into a party that ended many years ago.)

By today’s standards the technology was incredibly primitive, but we really were on the cutting edge back then. BBSers were using home computers to communicate with each other. Hardly anybody was doing that. It was revolutionary.

Anyway, that’s how I met Smabulator, who has since sailed solo to Scotland and is living happily ever after with his Scottish bride and baby-in-progress. He still, however, keeps one eye on Canada. And he might start writing a blog soon. I’m looking forward to that; he’s an excellent writer.

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