The Dawn of Online Chat

An Apple //e with 7 modems, one in each expansion slot.
Photo from http://rmac.d-dial.com/
People who have grown up in the age of the Internet usually don't know how hard it was to chat with other people in the dawn of the connected age.

I found this photo recently. It's an Apple //e, a 1 Mhz computer with 64KB of RAM. It had seven expansion slots. One was usually taken up by a converter to allow the Apple //e to display 80 columns of text instead of 40, and another slot usually taken up by a disk drive controller board, and a third by a modem.

You'd use that modem to call BBSes or bulletin board systems that usually supported just a single caller at a time. That meant a popular BBS would be busy most of the time. One BBS I ran, a board called The Programmer's Pitstop, was busy 95% of the time, 24 hours a day, for months on end.

BBSes were asynchronous mediums: one person would post messages, hang up, and then another person would call in.

But people craved more: they wanted real-time, simultaneous chat. And it was made possible by a select, crazy few (including me) in the mid 1980s. We'd tear out the 80-column display card, and the disk drive controller card, and stuff an Apple //e with 7 modems, filling every slot. At that capacity, the Apple //e couldn't cool itself off, so we'd either have to keep the cover off, or cut holes in. Without a disk drive controller, the only way to get the software loaded was from an audiotape connected to the audio input port. (Even in the mid 1980s this seemed a prehistoric way to load software - a mechanism that dated back to the 1970s.)

Then we'd call the phone company and have to convince them to run seven phone lines to a residence. When I did this in 1986, there were no phone lines left on my block. Three telephone company trucks showed up at my house every day for two weeks while they ran new lines from the nearest junction box, about three blocks away. When all was said and done, we had ten phone lines coming into our home: 7 for the chat system, 1 for outgoing modem calls, 1 voice line for me, and 1 voice line for my parents.

But the feeling of chatting in real-time for the first time with other people, sometimes on the other side of the country or world, was simply amazing. 


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