A trip down memory lane: FidoNet and Usenet

Creatures of Thought is a project I discovered just recently. It is about the history of science and technology, and it revolves around two primary tracks: The Switch and The Backbone. The former covers the digital switch; the latter is the story of how the world got online. Both sections are well written, researched, and curated. The latest installment of The Backbone covers Usenet’s invention, then FidoNet, and well, it sent me on a mesmerizing trip down memory lane.

In 1987 I was the operator (sysop) behind Lorien, the first online bulletin board system (BBS) that went online in my area. It was running in the back room of the local computer shop (appropriately named Computer House.) They had graciously sponsored my initiative with a desk, a PC/XT clone (which featured a 20MB hard disk), a green display monochrome monitor, and a 1200 baud modem if memory serves me well. At home, I only had a Commodore 64 with a 300 baud modem, so the XT with a speedy 1200 modem was luxury to me.

The shop was the only one in town, and a ragtag group of individuals frequented it. They met there to discuss all-things hardware and software, with the main thing being the smuggling floppy-disks and data-cassettes loaded with pirated games. As you can imagine, some of these hackers were immediately intrigued by the 17-year-old kid in the back room who was obscurely hacking at a PC all day long. It was the modem, however, with all its blinking lights, that caught the most attention. Modems back then, in Italy, were extremely rare. The original Hayes modems mentioned in the article, they existed only in our dreams.

Soon a small yet vibrant user base, mostly comprised of local hackers, developed around Lorien BBS. Among them, the guy who later became my co-founder, which I think tells a lot about the relevance of that teenager experience (to this day, almost 30 years later, we still work together.) Long story short, at some point in history (1990), Lorien evolved into Phoenix BBS. Phoenix was hosted in our brand new company office, was running on a PC/AT machine, boasted an 80MB hard disk, and a 2400 baud modem.

Most relevant to me, Phoenix was an active node of the FidoNet network. I had wanted to join FidoNet since the very first Lorien days. Tom Jennings, the creator of FidoNet, was a legend to me. Back then, however, long-distance phone calls were costly, and the computer shop could not afford them (FidoNet nodes used nightly, mostly long-distance, phone calls to keep in sync with each other.) Now at our company, we didn’t have a higher budget, but we were free to allocate money differently. According to FidoNet records, Phoenix was initially node 2:332/24 of the network. A couple of months later, for some reason, which I cannot recall, we became node 2:332/304. The same records show that at some point in 1993, we hit 9600 baud on connection speed and that the BBS was active for another four years.

It makes sense. By 1994 the Internet and the World Wide Web had come to life. Everyone quickly moved on there, and FidoNet became ghost town. Game over.

If you want to learn (a lot) more about those seminal years, do not miss the article that spawned all these memories. Here is an excerpt:

But even as the poor man’s ARPANET spread across the globe, microcomputer hobbyists, with far fewer resources than even the smallest of colleges, were still largely cut off from the experience of electronic communication. But they soon began their own shoe-string experiments in low-cost peer-to-peer networking, starting with something called bulletin boards.

The Era of Fragmentation, Part 4: The Anarchists

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