How quickly the past vanishes. A few memories came back to me this evening.
Back in the 1980’s, I bought my first PC. It was a plasticky Amstrad PC1640, with a hard drive on a card. I bought it with a bank loan, and returned it very quickly for the screen was of poor quality and the colours faded in one corner. I remember the feeling of bitter disappointment on the day, and the stress of the loan — perhaps £1,000, a month’s income in those days — and the following day I rang the vendor and asked to return it. He, more aware than I of my legal rights, obfusticated only a little before accepting it. It cost me £50 to return the hard drive, bought elsewhere. I forget what the bank charged me to cancel the loan, but it was a large sum for only a week’s loan, and I never took out a bank loan again. The relief when it was repaid was enormous.
Later I bought a PC with a proper metal box. It had only a monochrome screen, but the lettering on this was actually yellow. Everything about it was real, tho. I bought a modem, again on a card, and used it to dial up a bulletin-board system (BBS). The telephone numbers for these were printed in PC magazines. The high-pitched noise vanished as it connected, and the screeen gradually filled with blocky text and characters from the remote system. It was the most exciting thing I had ever seen; and it was all going on before me on my PC. There was no internet in those days, although usenet existed, if you were at a university and could access it. It was a closed book to me.
Over time I visited quite a number of BBS. I learned to post to the forums, which were syndicated across the Fidonet network that connected them together. I settled on one BBS, which called itself “Rivendell”, and had the motto “Where misty mountains rise, and friendly fires burn”. The motto was added to messages you sent.
There were downloads too. Pictures of asteroids and of earth, from NASA could be downloaded. More dubious images also circulated; and I recall at least one BBS which was, in retrospect, clearly rather dodgy. There was no search engine; most of the downloads were technical.
One element that was less welcome was the telephone bill that arrived at the end of the month. There were no special arrangements in the UK at that date, and it was something like £40, a big sum in those days. After that I was more cautious! Rumours circulated of incredible bills run up by people using BBS’s. In the US, we knew, enviously, that free local calls made BBS’s possible.
The arrival of the internet in the UK was severely hampered by this sort of problem, until some bright soul thought of a solution. He negotiated with British Telecom whereby he could charge a flat fee a month for access (about £18), and get an 0800 number which his subscribers could use. A bulk discount and the fact that most people would surf at the low bandwidth available then for only a few hours a week meant that this could work; and ISP’s rapidly proliferated. Today we all have broadband, but the price remains about the same.
I don’t know what became of the BBS’s. I found that having a computer at home as well as at work was stressful, and in the end, ca. 1990, I disposed of mine with some relief. I never had a computer at home again until I became a freelancer, and even then only bought a laptop that I could place in a drawer, out of sight, out of mind.