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Monday, November 02, 2020

Put Yourself Online

From the Computer Vault Dept.: I heard you clamoring for another one of my vintage computer-magazine pieces describing an era the technology of which has been so superseded as to now seem hilarious. And here it is. In the pre-internet days, we communicated online (and found porn) using bulletin-board systems, or BBSes, typically run on a dedicated computer into which you dialed – but it’s explained below. As a footnote: the BBS I set up for this piece endured for several months, but few phoned in and I shut it down even before the internet came along to render it laughably obsolete.


MY PHONE BILLS were getting way too high. “What are these calls to Florida and Oregon and Virginia all about?” my wife would ask. Because there is no alternative, I’d tell her. “Why do you have to call these BBSes all over the country?” she asked, adding reasonably, “Why can’t they call you?”

Thanks to a recent upgrade ripple in the house, I had enough pieces left over to put together a 386-based PC clone. Once a screamer, with an 80MB hard drive and 4MB of memory, it is now the last and least of my machines.

Perfect for a dedicated bulletin board system.

In my case, it’s intended to provoke lively conversation, with an emphasis on the writer’s craft. I’ve hosted writers’ conferences on other systems; this would be a chance to bring it home. And to save on those long-distance expenses.

Your reasons for setting up a BBS can be as varied as they are creative. If you’ve sampled any of the many to be found in every city all across the country (throughout the world, in fact, if your phone bill knows no fear), you’ve seen hobbies and interests of all sorts represented. Computer-based companies offer software and utilities on their BBSes; other businesses are now joining in, offering troubleshooting tips, product ordering facilities, and even a way for employees to stay in touch with each other and the central office.

So we system operators – sysops, for short – are in good company. But the hobbyist BBS has become the backbone of a grass-roots communications system that can even be part of a nationwide system of forwarded mail, not to mention local Internet access points. And the shareware concept of try-before-you-buy program distribution relies on BBS enthusiasm.

There are drawbacks. BBSes are vulnerable, posing a challenge to unscrupulous hackers who try to crash host machines. BBS programs are consequently more secure, but you still need to schedule regular backups. Also, uploaded files are a favorite vehicle for the spread of viruses, which means that you as sysop should check whatever’s uploaded with a good virus-defense program.

Although you can piggyback your BBS onto your present phone line, a full-time BBS is your best option if you want to develop a stable of regular callers. Consider putting in a dedicated phone line. If you already have a fax machine on its own line, gadgets are available that distinguish between incoming fax and modem calls.

I chose Mustang Software’s Wildcat! BBS program because it’s quick to configure, but offers heavy-duty customization tools when you’re ready to really dive under the hood. For the purpose of this piece, I worked with version 4.01 of the commercial release, but you can also find a shareware version on most good BBS systems.

As sysop, you’re the host of a party that can go on all day and night. You set the tone, so remember to check in frequently to review and answer messages and check on the file areas. As I’m already learning, you become part of a virtual family, which we can always use more of these days.

Everything You Need for This Project

IBM-compatible 386 or faster computer.
Phone line.
Wildcat! BBS software.


Backup your BBS software regularly.
Answer your messages frequently.


Don’t offer commercial software for download

Step 1: Plug in a modem.

I like to be frugal with my computer’s power supply, so I hooked up an external modem. Internal modems, snuggled into a motherboard slot, draw power and give off heat; an external modem comes with its own power transformer. And it has a display that lets you know when you’re online and when data is moving back and forth.

Unless it comes with a proprietary cable, a modem accepts the male end of a serial cable (the kind with 25 pins in two rows). The serial port on the back of your computer is either the type that accepts 25 pins or 9 pins, so you’ll have to choose your cable accordingly. Or, even better, keep adapters on hand.

And don’t forget to plug the modem into a phone line.

Step 2: Install the software.

Keep in mind that this is DOS-based software, so you’ll have to get to a C:> prompt. But it’s an easy job. Wilcat! comes with its own install routine; insert disk one of the software set in drive A: and type A:WINSTALL at the prompt. Accept the default directory format by pressing F10, confirm that you have no MAKEWILD.DAT file (press Y), and change disks when prompted to do so.

Step 3: Run MAKEWILD

As the software is put in place, Wildcat! creates the directory structure it needs. Change to the C:\WILDCAT> directory, from which you will perform all subsequent tasks. The first of which is to configure the general look of your BBS. Run MAKEWILD, and you’re asked the questions the program needs to know. Most of them are already answered with choices good for the novice sysop.

At the Makewild Main Menu, choose the first option, General information, by positioning the highlight bar over it (use the cursor keys or your mouse) and pressing Enter. The first three options are the most important: tell it your name, the name of your BBS, and the BBS phone number. At the fourth line, fill in your Wildcat! registration number. Press F10 to finish. Now select Modem settings from the main menu. By default, it suggests “Generic Hayes Compatible,” which should be good in most cases. Pressing F3 gives you a choice of other popular modem types, although they’re only given in somewhat cryptic eight-character names. Unless you can easily spot your modem on the list, stick with the default. If your modem isn’t on COM1, change the port number three items down. Press F10 to finish.

TIP: If your modem is a real oddball and you’re good with configuration settings, use the WCMODEM program to fine tune it.

Step 4: Check Your Menus

Wildcat! has a good default menu system to get you started. It’s a combination of two elements: a program that assigns bulletin board tasks to various letter commands, and a menu screen that explains what those letter commands do. At the prompt, type MAKEMENU and hit Enter to see the default menu structure. The outline of a menu tree shows that the each of the three menus – Main, File, and Message – allows access to one another. There’s also a Sysop Menu you’ll use for housekeeping chores. With Main Menu highlighted at the top of the screen, press F9 and you’ll see the same menus the caller will see. Press F10 to finish.

Step 5: Assign Security Levels.

Who gets to do what on your system? It’s up to you, assigned through your security settings. By default, the program locks out new users from most of the board activity. Being a trusting soul, I changed that to give new users full access. Here’s how. Run MAKEWILD and choose Security Profiles from the Main Menu. The User Security menu pops up; highlight NEWUSER. On the Edit Security Profile screen, cursor down to Menu display set and change the number from 1 to 5. Press F5 and you’ll see a window titled Menu Commands for NEWUSER. Add the following commands by clicking on them with the mouse or spacebar: Bulletin menu, Door menu, Page sysop, Questionnaire menu, Change user settings, Display statistics, Display newsletter, and Who is online. Also enable the commands under Message commands, File commands, and Global commands. Leave the Sysop commands unselected. Press F10 to finish.

Step 6: Draw a Welcome Screen.

I wanted my BBS to have a friendly face, so I made up a welcome screen that greets callers. Run the WCDRAW program. Choose Display Files from the main menu, scroll down the list to HELLO*.BBS and press Enter. Select HELLO1.BBS from the next menu. You’ll see a blank screen with -EOF- at the top, which means “end of form.”  Type “@CLS@,” which is a screen clearing code, and press Enter. Type your welcome message, keeping in mind that you can change colors by pressing F2, and toggle in and out of line-drawing mode by pressing F5. Press F10 to save your work.

Step 7: Run the BBS!

Type CAT at the C:\WILDCAT> prompt to start the system. Press S to test it by staging a sysop login, which also lets you assign yourself a password. You’ll see exactly what your callers will see, except for those added menu options that sysop status allows you.

Once you’re ready, get your number out there. Call other BBSes and let people know your system is up; at the same time, study the way other sysops set up their screens. I’ve done some extra configuring, adding bulletins and a newsletter screen, so give my BBS a call at 518-922-5107 and let me know what you think. And, if I can distract my wife from those phone bills, I’ll try to give your BBS a call.

Computer Life, April 1995

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