Before the public Internet and the World Wide Web, there were computer Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes). A device called a modem (modulator/demodulator) would turn computer data in to audio tones (modulate) so it could be sent across a phone line, and the modem at the other end would turn these tones back in to data (demodulate).
My first exposure to BBSes and modems was thanks to a local Radio Shack in Houston, Texas. They let me use their TRS-80 Model III to dial in to BBSes around the city. The salesmen there turned me in to part of a sales pitch. “This young man is currently connected to a computer across town…”
I never had a modem for my first computer, a Commodore VIC-20 that I received in 1982. I did, however, get to borrow a modem (from that same Radio Shack salesman) to use with my Radio Shack Color Computer I bought in 1983. That modem was a 300 baud (very slow, about the speed of a really fast typist) acoustic coupled version, which was the type with round holes on it that you would set a phone handset in so it could play sound to the mouthpiece, and hear sound from the earpiece. That’s right — you had to dial the phone yourself then set the handset down on the modem when the computer at the other end answered! (There were “smart modems” by then that could dial and answer the phone — that’s what the BBSes used — but they were vastly more expensive. I wouldn’t have one of those until years later when the price came down.)
But I digress.
Over the years, modem technology evolved, and they got faster and cheaper. BBSes were operating everywhere, and I remember calling them as late as 1995-1996 or so after I moved to Iowa. By that time,dialup internet was starting to spread, and soon calling a local BBS would be a thing of the past.
I miss my BBS days. I wrote one in 1983 that a cousin of a friend operated in Houston for awhile, and I ran my own several years later elsewhere in the state. I even started it up again (briefly) in Iowa. It was a fun time, and there was a greater sense of local community on them since most users would be from the local area (avoiding long distance charges).
Magicians Penn & Teller had a BBS of their own, too. It was called MOFO EX MACHINA. The following is a transcript of a dialup session I had with the system on November 24, 1990. Set your wayback machine to 300 baud (but hopefully 1200 by then) and read on:
CONNECT 1200 Remote V.1.3 Connected.... Please enter your password ............. Incorrect password Please enter your password ............. Hello, FAN. 11-24-1990 03:26:34 Checking your terminal type ... Your terminal type is Universal. Please wait... pc-runner . . . . . (c) 1986,87 eXTended Software Services (c) 1988 New York Municipal Computer Service Group Password series: Beta Trey NYCDT Node 3 XTPCSS v. 2.3 New York City Department of Traffic Employees are to take not that we are still testing this system and we are not yet ready to network this machine with the IBO-DEC 80 files. Do not rely on this system as a sole source of information and do *not* count something filed here as "Recorded Diem" until you are notified to do so by your supervisor. We would like to thank those brave enough to help us work out the in-operatives in this system. Remember, "We are rebuilding New York." Thank you for staying within the fifteen minute time limit, we are back-logged on reimbursments for phone expendentures. These calls should be short enough to fall under the 'petty cash' heading on Form 36J3/201/6 (available from Supervisor Bradley's Brooklyn office). 15 minutes Press any key --> NYCDT Node 3 XTPCSS v. 2.3 New York City Department of Traffic WARNING: Any attempt to enter names for exception of parking tickets is ILLEGAL! More importantly, before we bring this machine on-line it will be audited, save the favors until after we are up to speed. Notice: Meter maids applying for gun permits that were approved before January 21, 1988 please contact the assistant-supervisor's secretary: because of the Maynes-Fieldstein difficulty some permits were approved without official approval. Press any key... except that one. NYCDT Node 3 XTPCSS v. 2.3 New York City Department of Traffic Verifying use-approval code. Please stand-by. Checking... Usr apprvd. Accs denied. Accnt clsd. Usr apprvd. Accs denied. Accnt clsd. Usr apprvd. Accs denied. Accnt clsd. Manual override/%THY! MO:HCK@NYC NYCDT Node X XTPCSS v.666 New York City Department of Tra Tra Tra Tra --trapdoor activated-- Thanks to bribes, kickbacks and the department in charge of tracking municipally-owned equipment (or lack there of any such department), we are proud to present a bulletin board with a real purpose... 14 minutes Press any key --> W E L C O M E T O M O F O E X M A C H I N A A public service bulletin board from the good folks at the Buggs & Rudy Discount Corporation. Mofo controls this bulletin board, telling you about Penn & Teller and the ever-changing world in which they live in. Why not give it a try? Press any key... except that one. 14 minutes Press any key --> T E L L E R T A L K Hello, and thanks for logging on. This is Teller. I'm writing this installment in a hotel room in Baltimore on November 10th, 1990. We're touring this fall, and this is my fifth hotel room, if you don't count the one in Chicago by the ice machine that I moved out of so that I could sleep. I am reading SUNDAY NIGHTS AT SEVEN the Jack Benny biography/autobiography. In dark type is interesting stuff from a manuscript by Benny. It's nice, good-natured stuff about the life of a vaudevillian, radio star, and tv personality. In light type (the bulk of the book) is petty crap, poorly written (dictated into a tape recorder?) by his smug, talent-free adopted daughter. Oh, boy, at last she has the chance to brag about being a spoiled brat and get back at her demanding mother. Unfortunately, every once in a great while, she quotes George Burns or somebody else good; so you can't get away with just skipping the light type. The tour is going gangbusters. It's a bit eerie. We land in a new city. We drive into town. We walk into the theatre, which is always distinctly different from the last one. And there on stage is a little microcosm that is absolutely the same: our set. It's almost as if somebody picked up everything in my bedroom, even the waste basket 13 min [?,C,G,M,Q] --> ? [C]ontinous, [G]oodbye, ,[M]ore, [Q]uit this file 13 min [?,C,G,M,Q] --> C full of trash, and placed it, exactly as it was, in the middle of the forest. My happiest extracurricular activity: I heard a great band in Milwaukee, The Rhythm Club. Four women and a bass player who are all amazing musicians and who, like NRBQ seem to be able to do ANYTHING they want at the drop of a hat. Upcoming events -- Letterman on November 20th. Our big special: "Don't Try This At Home" on the 23rd. Minneapolis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, then a short vacation. Ta for now. 13 minutes Press any key --> What's up with Penn - 11/20/90 Well Mofo computer friends, I'm on an airplane flying to Minneapolis where we'll do our show for a few nights. I'm writing this on my Grid 1450SX, a major cool computer that I get to borrow because I'm writing the back page for "PC Computing" magazine. The issue on the stands right now has an article of mine on the back page with a little drawing of me. The picture is okay - my fat smiling face sitting at a computer but the computer has a sticker that says, "Kiss Me, I'm User Friendly". I'm sorry, it was not my idea. They didn't show it to me before it was printed. As a matter of fact this whole article was edited heavily but they promised that won't happen in the future. I've asked Pie to get my original one on this machine so you can check it out. I've written my next four back pages already and you can tell because the vast majority mention Uma Thurman. That means I had to have written them before I saw "Henry and June" where Uma doesn't feature her Thurmans. Since then, I don't talk about her 12 min [?,C,G,M,Q] --> C much. I hold a grudge. I'll try to get all the "PC Computing" articles on-line here so you can read them without having to buy "PC Computing" but you have to promise that if you read them here you'll write a letter to "PC Computing" and tell them how much you liked my articles and how because of them you'll buy the magazine from now on every month. They've had someone cancel their subscription and write a nasty letter because I'm too violent. I need your help. We've been on TV a lot pimping the "Penn & Teller: Don't Try This at Home" - If you have a Nielsen box, please watch it and nothing else that whole week and if you don't have a Nielsen box, use your own judgement. I think it's a good special and if it does well, they'll let us do it again. This is the first thing I've written in a long time for the Mofo machine. Since the Wall Street Journal talked about it we're trying to get it up and keep it good so, if you got any ideas - let us know. I'll be writing stuff for this area pretty often from now on and maybe I'll even write something good but right now I'm on an airplane and you know how that is. I'll have a diet cola, no glass, no ice, Penn 12 minutes Press any key --> P E N N & T E L L E R ' S S C H E D U L E Television appearances: November 16 - Late Night with David Letterman November 20 - "Live at Five" in New York November 23 - Penn & Teller "DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME" on NBC at 8:00 PM Live appearances: THE REFRIGERATOR TOUR November 21 - November 25 Minneapolis November 28 - December 16 San Francisco November 18 - December 31 Los Angeles 11 minutes Press any key --> N E W P A S S W O R D S There are a couple new passwords. To keep things clear I'll just list them all. MOFO -- basic password, basic TTY terminal MOFOV -- for fans who can emulate a Dec VT-100 terminal MOFOC -- fans that want to skip the Cold Open screens MOFOCV -- combo of C & V, natch Let me know if there are more options you want. Mofo -- Some people have said that the vt-100 emulation isn't working. I'll look into it and let you know why. 11 minutes Press any key --> Join Penn & Teller's F.B.I. They're three thousand nine hundred and fifty three point twenty five miles below Manhattan, to be exact. Coming at you louder and louder from the Center of the Earth. Want to know more? (Y or N): Yup Join Penn & Teller's F.B.I. F A N S B E L O W T H E I S L A N D Penn & Teller, with the help of MOFO the Psychic Gorilla have gone under, way under, to develop a fan club for all of you out there who know these boys are onto something big. Yeah, you'll get bimonthly newletters, discounts on wild t-shirts, records, tapes and videos, and someday (after they're out of style), there may even be a button. Gives you chills, huh? You'll learn how to swindle and humiliate like a pro, talk a blue streak about funky new strains of music, pull crack-up jokes out of thin air. Hey, you'll learn how to be cool. This club's not for wimps or Doug Henning/David Copperfield fans (redundant), your stomach is probably not strong enough to join. Think it over carefully. Then GET DOWN, and send six dollars to: Penn & Teller's F.B.I. Earth's Center c/o Box 1196, NY, NY 10185-0010 10 minutes Press any key --> S E R V I C E without the smile, for now No, there is no electronic mail for now. Talk to the Evil Overload SweetiePie about this if you wish. Don't bother me, I just do as I'm told, when I feel like doing it. There should be some fresh stuff on the board soon. The email probably won't return until I figure out a stable way for it to operate, and perhaps not even then. We're thinking about it. November 1990: Someone called in and trashed all the files on the hard drive. We're not sure why, but we've taken some measures to make it a little more difficult. There are two announcements here, each written by Penn and Teller. Soon there will be a way for you to write to them. 10 min [?,C,G,M,Q] --> C -cs 10 minutes Press any key --> A N O T H E R W E L C O M E Glad you could squeeze in among the twenty calls a day that we've been getting. Any comments you would like to leave for Penn & Teller should be sent with the electronic mail system. You have to log in with a name and password to use it. Is this your first time on? Nope -- you said to stop -- by pressing a key M O F O ' S M A I N M E N U This is Mofo's root menu, all submenus are accessed from here. You can return to the previous menu from each submenu, eventually ending here. Mofo ex Machina, version 3.0 G: say goodbye (disconnect)
That was almost 25 years ago. Hopefully one day we can hear Penn tell us more about this BBS, and how it started and ended. Drop by Penn’s Sunday School (audio podcast) and drop him a note and maybe, if there is enough interest, he will make it a topic for an episode.