August 3, 2009

Computing in the 1980s, Part IV

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

Life was better at 2400 bps in the 1980s.

It was also better at 80 columns, as opposed to the TRS-80 Model III’s 64 columns. Yes, not only did the Model III not have “real” graphics (it had character block graphics), it had a 64-column by 16 row screen.

The typical PC text screen, or terminal display in Windows, is 80 columns by 25 rows.

Both the Commodore 64 and Apple II used 40 column display, though on the Apple you could buy an “80 column card”) to get 80 columns of text. You had to use something other than a TV set to see the screen, of course — a real monitor.

The Commodore 64 and Apple II both came with color graphics, and both played great games. The TRS-80, CP/M and IBM computers didn’t have color graphics in their basic configurations. The TRS-80 had block graphics, and CP/M machines used text graphics to play games.

On the PC, you had to buy a Color Graphics Adapter (CGA) to get two colors at 640-by-480 resolution or four colors at 320-by-240 resolution. Most games were played in four colors at the lower resolution.

The next generation modem after the 300 bps modem as the 1200 bps, four times faster. I skipped that generation, though I did play with Radio Shack’s 1200 bps prototype. It was nice.

In 1984 or 85, US Robotics came out with a 2400 bps modem, which was a stellar achievement. Everyone I knew online bought one. It was kick-ass.

For a while, 2400 bps seemed to be as fast as the phone company’s fragile copper wires could handle things. Then, in the late 1980s, the 9600 bps modem came about.

The early 9600 bps modems cheated: They used 9600 for download, but uploaded information at only 300 bps. But 9600 was a short-lived standard.

After 9600 came the 24,000 bps modem. Then followed the 54,000 bps modem, commonly known a the 54Kbps modem, which was popular throughout the late 1990s and even today. Apparently, that’s as fast as things can go using traditional phone equipment.

As modem speed increased in the early 1980s, so did the variety of what your computer could dial into. BBSs became very popular.

One of the most popular features of the San Diego computer magazine I edited was the BBS list. Eventually the list grew to an entire page. Then we had to start rotating which systems we listed because there were just too many of them.

The writer I hired to review the BBSs spent a lot of time ferreting out which systems were really full time (we listed only full time systems) and which offered good content. It was a source of contention and many angry letters to the editor, which I relished.

In the early 1980s, I visited a series of BBSs called the People’s Message System. The software was created by computer communications pioneer Bill Blue, who lived in my home town. Bill was also the author of a popular communications program for the Apple II.

The PMS BBS was followed by the People’s Database Message System, known as PdBMS. It was written using the dBASE database programming language. It was also loosely connected with the ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet.

In the late 1980s, Bill hosted an ARPAnet domain called .crash. I was fortunate enough to have an account on that system, which meant I could use the ARPAnet. When the ARPAnet turned into the Internet, crash became the domain I used.

Of course, this is well before the Domain Naming System was created to solve the problem of finding computers on the Internet. So when I referenced crash, I had to also reference its parent computer, bang. I could further reference bang‘s parent, which was an HP computer, and I forget its name.

Long story short: To send me email on the ARPAnet, you used the address ...bang!crash!dang.


  1. Great info Dan. But to be honest Im having a real hard time figuring out how there could be user loyalty between brands of computer when all they did was the exact same thing of running text only programs. The OS’es werent even really an OS, but more of just a program loader from what I can tell. I guess you had to get a hold of ‘big iron’ to actually run an OS that could run stuff on its own and not just load a program.

    Comment by BradC — August 3, 2009 @ 12:28 am

  2. It’s psychological, BradC. Basically you paid a Big Chunk of income for a computer and therefore you loved it equally as much. There were user clubs, magazines, after-market hardware and software, plus all sorts of brand-specific information that helped promote brand loyalty. It was an investment not only of money but of time and attention. Hobbyists can get that way. Heck, I remember arguing with my fellow teenagers on why Honda made a better motorcycle than Yamaha — It’s that same type of brand loyalty.

    You don’t get brand loyalty today because every manufacturer uses the same basic suppliers from China.

    In the 1980s, people were really proud of their home computers, their microcomputers. Picking on someone else’s computer was akin to kicking their dog and met with the same reaction. Yeah, it was a different time.

    The OS was simply a loader, correct. But just about everyone back then was a programmer. We all wrote tools and utilities and some even wrote commercial programs. The variety of software available was rich, but limited to only what the OS would allow. Even so, there were some great things that came out of that limited environment.

    Computers were fresh and new. Everything about them was exciting.

    Comment by admin — August 3, 2009 @ 8:01 am

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