Imagine a world without the Internet. Without e-mail. Without Windows or Apples. Heck, for that matter, imagine a world without PCs.
That's what the world was like 25 years ago when two Chicago guys named Ward Christensen and Randy Suess officially launched the world's first computerized bulletin board system (BBS). It took them less than a month to create it. And in typical Chicago fashion, a snowstorm got an assist in the invention.
“There was a snowfall in January that was so bad I couldn't get to work,'' said Christensen, 56, a systems engineer at IBM for 35 years. “I shoveled for two hours, and then gave up. That's why this couldn't have been invented on the West Coast.''
Stuck at his suburban home, Christensen phoned Suess, a friend and fellow member of the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists Exchange. CACHE was a club for people who had built their own computers (in those days, most computers were mainframes for commercial use). In the course of their conversation, the duo thought it would be nice if they could create a computerized version of the snowbound group's bulletin board — an actual corkboard with notes attached by push pins.
In a few weeks, Christensen had written the software and Suess had tackled the hardware. MS/DOS wasn't even around back then, nor were hard drives (8-inch floppy disks were the norm). Yet Christensen created programming code that would let his friends use a newfangled thing called a modem (for modulation, demodulation) to let their computer place a phone call to the computer that Suess rigged up.
There were a number of simple commands (for example, “r'' to read, “e'' to enter a new message), and the subjects on the bulletin board would scroll across the caller's computer screen. Before you could say “Control-alt-delete,'' the word on Ward and Randy's innovation had spread across the globe and into the history books.
The BBS wasn't Christensen's first innovation. A few months before, he'd also created an “xmodem,'' which allowed files to be transferred between computers. So why isn't he swimming in dough and telling a young punk like Bill Gates to go fetch him a large latte?
“I guess I don't have that entrepreneurial gene to create a company,'' shrugged Christensen, noting that a lot of computer pioneers were more interested in sharing their discoveries for the common good than in cloning a cash cow. He did try early on to get IBM to create a line of personal computers but was told the company didn't see a market for such a product. Oops.
Christensen saw some friends become computer consultants, others create successful firms and still others crash and burn when they tried to go into business for themselves. But he's more interested in talking about the way the BBS opened a new world to a deaf journalist, or how he was able to help a blind friend by installing a voice synthesizer on his computer two decades ago.
“I certainly love the way computers have made the world a much smaller place,'' he said.
But he's more concerned that poor families are being left far behind in the Information Age, in which reams of pooled knowledge are just a search engine away.
“There's a social divide between the haves and have-nots, an ever-widening gap in which some people in our society can't afford a computer,'' he said. “The gap is probably never going to narrow to where computers become as common as a refrigerator in someone's home.''
As Christensen takes part in an IBM mentoring program with some area eighth-graders, he sees that federal and state budgets have less money to offer computers to classrooms.
“If government doesn't help pay for the machines, I don't see a bright future for that gap narrowing,'' he acknowledged. “But prices have come down.''
Christensen doesn't have to shop for a PC because he always has created a better model than the stores carry. His current computer, he said, is about 1,000 times faster than the BBS he created a quarter-century ago.