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This Week In Illinois History: World’s First BBS Goes Live (Feb. 16, 1978)

Wikipedia user Jscott (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Great Blizzard of 1978 was one of the worst storms in Illinois’ history. One-hundred-mile-an-hour winds whipped up snow drifts as high as 12 feet. Wind chills were so low they caused railroad tracks to buckle and break. Northern Illinois, especially Chicago, ground to a halt. And a couple of snowed-in computer nerds created a major technological achievement.

It was Feb. 16, 1978, just after the great blizzard, when two Chicagoans, Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, launched the world’s first computerized bulletin board system (BBS).

They had met a few years earlier through the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists’ Exchange (CACHE) and thought it would be cool to share the club’s information over some kind of computerized messaging system.

When the storm hit, they found themselves snowed in with time to tinker. Christensen wrote the software, Suess built the hardware and they created the whole system from scratch.

They called their creation Computerized Bulletin Board System, or CBBS. CACHE members used their computers to dial directly into a computer in Suess’s basement. When they connected, they could read and share club messages and project ideas.  

“The whole BBS thing was for our computer club to be able to produce newsletters,” Suess said in the 2005 film, BBS: The Documentary. “That was the whole idea of it. It worked. From wherever it went from then… fine.”

Suess and Christensen revealed their technology in trade magazines and gave away the software for free. Their digital message exchange system inspired hundreds of computer hobbyists to build their own BBSs, planting the seeds that would grow into the modern internet.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.
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