This is the Modem World: The sinister side of the '80s BBS

Joshua Fruhlinger
J. Fruhlinger|07.31.13

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Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

Some of the following, for legal reasons, may or may not be fictional.

My first modem was a 300-baud Apple-Cat II. It was an expansion card for the Apple II and simply plugged into a phone line. It was, simply put, a bad-ass piece of technology that turned me into a total digital delinquent. While my parents thought I was innocently learning to code BBSes (bulletin board systems) I was actually learning how to get things for free and paving the way for software pirates, phone phreaks and straight-up frauds of the future.

The Apple-Cat II could connect to other Apple-Cat IIs at 1200 baud, which made file transfers pretty quick for the time. This meant we could trade entire games in about an hour. We'd log into bulletin board systems, share lists of things we had and set up times to dial one another to trade games. Usually a barter would take place -- your Aztec for my Hard Hat Mack. It was a lot like trading baseball cards, I imagine.

I had about 350 5.25-inch disks alphabetized in a giant plastic case. They were mostly games, a few productivity applications of the time that I never used and a nice little collection of insidious apps that helped me do things way beyond simple file transfers.

First there were the war dialers. These, on the surface, were harmless applications simply designed to scan the local telephone exchange for other computers. You'd enter some parameters -- dial in this or that prefix only -- and leave it running overnight. You'd wake in the morning to a decent list of computers, hopefully BBSes. Then you'd dial each one of them until you found a BBS that looked interesting,and by "interesting" I mean filled with delicious warez.

Once you had a couple prospects, you'd prove yourself to the SYSOP (system operator) by uploading a choice piece of warez gratis. It would have to be something he -- or she -- was specifically looking for, so this would sometimes turn into a little side quest on its own. Usually you could find what the SYSOP was looking for on another BBS, and, like a drug mule, add that file to his or her collection.

Once you were in the BBS with a username and password, you'd need to keep a close eye on your upload / download ratio. If all you did was download warez, you'd be labeled a leech and be kicked off the system. If you provided a ton, especially first-party software cracks, you'd be deemed a clan leader and reap much respect (and fresh warez to crack). Above those clan leaders were the software crackers, the people who could remove copy protection from games and other apps to allow them to run without asking for a serial number or other form of DRM at the time.

On the even darker side of '80s modem fun, there were phone phreaking programs that would do a couple things. Some would dial into corporate exchanges and look for outside lines meant for traveling businessmen. Those were gold, as they allowed us to make long-distance calls to BBSes outside our area code during a time when phone companies charged by exchange. Others would dial into credit card authorization systems looking for good card numbers to be later used for equipment. My personal involvement stopped at that level as I couldn't quite get my teenage head around simply stealing computers. Plus, right as I got into the BBS scene, I witnessed a small group of online acquaintances get hauled off to jail in one of the first online fraud cases of its kind.

My personal favorite little Apple-Cat II trick was found in a little program called The Cat's Meow. This allowed me to generate tones directly into the phone line while on calls. I could choose from a soundboard of tones that could do everything from speak in a computer voice to generate payphone coin sounds to extend calls with friends who were at the corner arcade.

Why did we do all of this? Mainly because we could, and we loved the technology. We recognized that the future of computing was online, and we were paving the way for future generations of bad boys and bad girls.

Funny thing is, piracy hasn't changed all that much. If you were to take a look at modern warez exchanges on BitTorrent or Usenet, they'd look a heck of a lot like '80s BBSes -- groups of people working underground to get their hands on the latest stuff, all regulated by equitable exchange networks that both protect those involved and assure a certain level of fairness, keeping the leeches at bay.

But most importantly, we could annoy girls with silly sounds while on the phone with them. That's really what it was all about. We were bad, but the internet wouldn't be the same if we hadn't broken the rules early on.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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