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 Feature Story                      

A Short History of Electronic Communications in Calhoun County
is not as dry as it sounds. Since you are here by electronic means, you might be interested to learn some of the history of the medium...

A Short History of Electronic Communications in Calhoun County
By Norman Morrison
 

    

     Folks who take instant communication for granted these days may be surprised to learn that Calhoun Countians had an electronic networking long before the internet.
            If you have a really old computer, or a really new one, chances are that you have a little program on there called HyperTerminal, and chances are also good that you donít have a clue about what it does.
            HyperTerminal is a communications program that is used to let you hook up to directly to another computer over your modem. Way back in the days before the Internet, everyone used more souped up versions of HyperTerminal to connect to mostly local computer Bulletin Boards (BBS). In effect, your computer would make a call to the other computer, make a connection, and allow you to leave and post messages and upload and download files much like you do today on the Internet.
            In 1985 there were two operating boards in our local calling area. One was owned by Kempís and was housed on a MAC, and the other was one of the first ever in the state owned by Tom Bowerman on a PC.
            Unlike the net, which is instantly global, and somewhat overwhelming and impersonal, the bulletin boards of Calhoun County were like old friends. You knew that when your message left your machine it would go to theirs, and there it would stay.
            The heyday of BBSís in Calhoun County and around the country was from the early 80ís to the early 90ís. Toward the end, two interesting things happened to extend their usefulness. One internet like service was called PCPursuit, operated by General Electric. They would establish banks of modems in larger towns around the nation so that someone in Oxford, for example, could make a local modem call to the bank in Anniston which would allow the user to then connect to the bank in Chicago. Then, from there, the user could make calls to the boards there. It was quite ingenious and expensive. It never really caught on, but was an eye opener to what was possible.
            Then in the late 80ís local BBSís started banding together in global networks. You could send a message to someone in England on a local BBS in Anniston, and magically, about four in the morning, it would be sent down the phone line and in a couple of days it would make it to the recipient. Compared to the Internet it was slow and dorky, but it worked. The Internet was coming on so quickly, though, that the BBS networks were history nearly as quickly as they were perfected, and that was less than 5 years.  

     Today with broadband, we donít give a second thought of moving megabytes of material per minute. In 1985 though, you could do about 150 bytes per second, theoretically. In practice, a modem could just keep up with a fast typist. Speed was measured in baud, and in 1985 300 baud was the standard. 300 gave way to 1200, then 2400, finally ending with a blazing super fast 9600 baud super modem. There was a trick to tie two of these together to realize 18,200 but it didnít last long. Nowadays instead of 9600 characters per second, your modem is theoretically capable of 56,000 and cable and DSL modems put your computer into warp drive.
            In the middle 90ís BBSís gave way to local ISP or Internet Service Providers. One local pioneer was Internettport. Eventually local mom and pop dispensers were gobbled up by larger concerns.
            AOL began life as a Commodore computer BBS. Did you know that? In the early days here there were 3 types of computers, MACS, PCís, and Commodores. At the zenith, there were about 8 or 10 BBSís in our area sitting on one of these kinds of computers. One of the most popular was the Mailbag BBS which used a teensy little Commodore 64 running at 1 megahertz with 32,000 bytes of memory and 5 floppy drives each capable of storing a whopping 320,000 bytes of information. Contrast that with modern home computers with a half billion bytes of memory running at multi gigahertz speed with 120 gigabyte hard drives. Giga, by the way means billion. Quite a difference!
            These days, we think nothing of striking up an instant chat with someone a half a world away on the internet. In the BBS days, you could do a local form of chat with the owner of the BBS, but otherwise, you were limited to leaving messages. One nice thing that was available then which isnít these days, however, were the local computer clubs. There was a club for each of the three machines, MAC, PC, and Commodore, and there was a tremendous loyalty to oneís machine. Eventually, Commodore went under, Apple (There wasnít a MAC club) went to the MAC, and the PC guys were just out there by themselves. At this time everyone sort of combined into one super group with the strange acronym of OCCUG, or Occasional Calhoun County User Group.
            It was not uncommon at a club meeting to find PC users side by side with a Commodore user playing games while the BBQ was cooking outside. The point is that in the modern era, while we have instant access to the world, we rarely know anyone on our street who also has a computer. Computer use these days is much more impersonal.
            So, the next time you strike up a connection to the internet, it might be good to remember those all but forgotten days here locally when it was one man and one computer talking to one man with one computer on the other end. It makes one wonder why we just didnít pick up the phone. (It wouldnít have been nearly as much fun. Thatís why!)
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