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Early 80s dial up

When I was still going to CalArts in the early to mid 1980s, I parlayed my recently acquired BASIC programming skills (via a Timex Sinclair 1000) into a part time job at a little mom-and-pop company in Granada Hills.

The company did chemical recycling. They would buy used or surplus chemicals, such as industrial solvents, or glycerine, and resell them to buyers (often cosmetics companies looking to save a buck). The couple who ran it were really nice, and desperately needed technical help. I was in my early 20s, had few technical skills, but knew how to figure things out.

The job was ostensibly to create and maintain a database of chemicals, on an Altos “minicomputer” with a few dumb terminals running MP/M. I learned dBase II on the job (it was the second computer language I gained any proficiency in, and perhaps the only one versioned in roman numerals). All my learning came from a handful of books and a lot of trial and error.

This was my first job that paid more than minimum wage (not much more, but enough to realize that I was going to be more successful as a programmer than a musician), and it gave me access to several computers (including an original IBM PC), a phone line, and a 1200 baud Hayes modem. I tended to “work” in the late evenings and spent an enormous amount of time abusing the privilege.

Fairly early on, I wrote a “war dialer” in BASIC, which would sequentially dial thousands of the local phone numbers, listening for the telltale code that indicated a modem had answered the phone, recording the “hits” to a text file.

There were more modems connected to phone lines in those days, but still not many (maybe 1 for every 300 numbers tried). If I left the modem’s speaker on, I could hear a series of answering machine messages, annoyed people answering “Hello?” at 2am, and lots of ringing phones which didn’t pick up at all.

I was aware that this activity was probably illegal, and I took a few steps to cover my tracks. I only called local numbers, so as not to leave a record on the company phone bill, and I scrambled the order of the numbers I dialed, instead of dialing them in sequence (I have no idea if this helped evade detection, but the activity didn’t last long and I never got busted for it).

After the War Dialer ran all night, I would come in the next day and try dialing into the newly acquired modem numbers myself, to see what treasures lay on the other side of the line. Several systems had login prompts, and some of them identified themselves and provided useful help systems.

I remember getting excited when a local hospital provided a helpful staff directory, giving me a list of potential accounts to log into.

But I didn’t get very far. Breaking into other computers was never my primary hobby. Everything about computers was fascinating and I dabbled in a lot of things, but I mostly liked programming itself.

One of the nice things about doing technical work in a place with few technical people, is that your screen was generally filled with unreadable gibberish, and it was not at all obvious what you were actually doing. As long as I was programming, it looked like I was working, even though I could be programming something completely unrelated to the job at hand, such as a war dialer.

It is perhaps worth mentioning, in case any future or current employers are reading this, that this was a very long time ago. I am now an elderly graybeard programmer and have matured ever-so-slightly.

I got my friend Kevin a job there, and we spent a lot of time dialing into the local BBSes in the 818, which were flourishing. We also ran our own BBS, The Phantom, for a time, during the evening hours, and would chat with the people who dialed in. We would arrive at the office at 8pm and hop BBSes til 6 or 7 in the morning, doing the occasional run to the local Carls for burgers and Monterey chicken sandwiches.

In Los Angeles the 818 and 213 BBSes were numerous and varied. I remember a lot of FidoNet and Wildcat systems. Our BBS, The Phantom, was a RBBS-PC systems which was programmed in BASIC. I remember attending a local RBBS user group and meeting other BBS operators. It was a community dominated by bored white guys who would have been into Ham Radio in another decade (not dissimilar to the Hurdy Gurdy players and Airplane enthusiasts I currently commune with, honestly).

We used our BBS to publish freeware that we wrote (often in CP/M WordStar), hoping to seed it to other BBSes. Most of my offerings were arts-related and probably never had an audience of more than ten people. I remember writing a BASIC program called “FakeBach” that emitted pleasant(?) computer-generated melodies until you hit Control-C, and a simple ecosystem simulation of sheep and daisies in a meadow (very much influenced by A.K. Dewdney’s Wa-Tor column in Scientific American).

Kevin, more technically polished than I, experimented with Small C, one of the first free C language implementations available to us (I didn’t learn C until a few years later — it rapidly outpaced BASIC and became the dominant PC language by the late 80s). Kevin also made his own Forth clone which he called “OrthFay”, a naming idea I later stole for my language “iptScray”.

We copied and hosted freeware from other BBSes that we liked, and we chatted (typed) with the occasional caller, if we happened to be around.

A few nascent BBBes were exploring new ways of selling things in the mid 80s. There was an online shopping mall in Covina called The Citadel (1984-1992), which was a bit like a text adventure set in a deserted Glendale Galleria.

These dialup systems were limited by the number of incoming phone lines they could handle, which was generally less than 10, so the Citadel was never going to rival Amazon.

One of my favorite late night haunts was an oddball 213 BBS called PatVac, run by an apparent eccentric named Harris Boldt Edelman, who was a kind of software satirist. I remember his parody version of WordStar, called WordTard, which had a bunch of oddball menu options, and would inject random characters into your documents. I just looked up Harris and found his occupation is (or was) listed as “Atavistic Desuetism”.

The Phantom only survived a year (1985). The BBS heyday lasted just a few years, eventually BBSes were subsumed by the various online services that were cropping up, soon to be followed by the consumer Internet. While BBSes continued well into the 90s, I had stopped using them by 1989 or so. By the mid-90s, a war dialer was much more likely to encounter fax machines than dial-up systems.

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