Dead media hacker lore from Eric Raymond

Sunday 1st October, 2023 - Bruce Sterling

“Tools generate culture; sometimes, when a tool becomes obsolete, a bit of cultural commonality quietly evaporates.”

One fine day in January 2017 I was reminded of something I had half-noticed a few times over the previous decade. That is, younger hackers don’t know the bit structure of ASCII and the meaning of the odder control characters in it.

This is knowledge every fledgling hacker used to absorb through their pores. It’s nobody’s fault this changed; the obsolescence of hardware terminals and the near-obsolescence of the RS-232 protocol is what did it. Tools generate culture; sometimes, when a tool becomes obsolete, a bit of cultural commonality quietly evaporates. It can be difficult to notice that this has happened.

This document began as a collection of facts about ASCII and related technologies, notably hardware serial terminals and RS-232 and modems. This is lore that was at one time near-universal and is no longer. It’s not likely to be directly useful today – until you trip over some piece of still-functioning technology where it’s relevant (like a GPS puck), or it makes sense of some old-fart war story. Even so, it’s good to know anyway, for cultural-literacy reasons.

One thing this collection has that tends to be indefinite in the minds of older hackers is calendar dates. Those of us who lived through all this tend to have remembered order and dependencies but not exact timing; here, I did the research to pin a lot of that down. I’ve noticed that people have a tendency to retrospectively back-date the technologies that interest them, so even if you did live through the era it describes you might get a few surprises from reading this.

There are lots of references to Unix in here because I am mainly attempting to educate younger open-source hackers working on Unix-derived systems such as Linux and the BSDs. If those terms mean nothing to you, the rest of this document probably won’t either.

Hardware context

Nowadays, when two computers talk to each other, it’s usually via TCP/IP over some physical layer you seldom need to care much about. And a “terminal” is actually a “terminal emulator”, a piece of software that manages part of a bit-mapped display and itself speaks TCP/IP.

Before ubiquitous TCP/IP and bit-mapped displays things were very different. For most hackers that transition took place within a few years of 1992 – perhaps somewhat earlier if you had access to then-expensive workstation hardware.

Before then there were video display terminals – VDTs for short. In the mid-1970s these had displaced an earlier generation of printing terminals derived from really old technology called a “teletype”, which had evolved around 1900 from Victorian telegraph networks. The very earliest versions of Unix in the late 1960s were written for these printing terminals, in particular for the Teletype Model 33 (aka ASR-33); the “tty” that shows up in Unix device names was a then-common abbreviation for “teletype”…


WAN time gone: The forgotten pre-Internets

Today, the TCP/IP Internet is very nearly the only WAN (Wide-Area-Network) left standing. It was not always so. From the late ’70s to the mid-1990s – but especially between 1981 and 1991 – there were a profusion of WANs of widely varying capability. You are most likely to trip over references to these in email archives from that time; one characteristic of it is that people sometimes advertised multiple different network addresses in their signatures.

Every hacker over a certain age remembers either UUCP or the BBS scene. Many participated in both. In those days access to the “real” net (ARPANET, which became Internet) was difficult if you weren’t affiliated with one of a select group of federal agencies, military contractors, or university research labs. So we made do with what we had, which was modems and the telephone network.

UUCP stands for Unix to Unix Copy Program. Between its escape from Bell Labs in 1979 and the mass-market Internet explosion of the mid-1990s, it provided slow but very low-cost networking among Unix sites using modems and the phone network.

UUCP was a store-and-forward system originally intended for propagating software updates, but its major users rapidly became email and a thing called USENET (launched 1981) that was the ur-ancestor of Stack Overflow and other modern web fora. It supported topic groups for messages which, propagated from their point of origin through UUCP, would eventually flood to the whole network.

In part, UUCP and USENET were a hack around the two-tier rate structure that then existed for phone calls, with “local” being flat-rate monthly and “long-distance” being expensively metered by the minute. UUCP traffic could be relayed across long distances by local hops.

A direct descendant of USENET still exists, as Google Groups [6], but was much more central to the hacker culture before cheap Internet. Open source as we now know it germinated in USENET groups dedicated to sharing source code. Several conventions still in use today, like having project metadata files named README and NEWS and INSTALL, became established there in the early 1980s – though at least README was older, having been seen in the wild back on the PDP-10.

Two key dates in USENET history were universally known. One was the Great Renaming in 1987, when the name hierarchy of USENET topic groups was reorganized. The other was the “September that never ended” in 1993, when the AOL commercial timesharing services gave its users access to USENET. The resulting vast flood of newbies proved difficult to acculturate.

UUCP explains a quirk you may run across in old mailing-list archives: the bang-path address. UUCP links were point-to-point and you had to actually specify the route of your mail through the UUCP network; this led to people publishing addresses of the form “…!bigsite!foovax!barbox!user”, presuming that people who wanted to reach them would know how to reach bigsite. As Internet access became more common in the early 1990s, addresses of the form user@hostname displaced bang paths. During this transition period there were some odd hybrid mail addresses that used a “%” to weld bang-path routing to Internet routing.

UUCP was notoriously difficult to configure, enough so that people who knew how often put that skill on their CVs in the justified expectation that it could land them a job.

Meanwhile, in the microcomputer world, a different kind of store-and-forward evolved – the BBS (Bulletin-Board System). This was software running on a computer (after 1991 usually an MS-DOS machine) with one (or, rarely, more) attached modems that could accept incoming phone calls. Users (typically, just one user at a time!) would access the BBS using a their own modem and a terminal program; the BBS software would allow them to leave messages for each other, upload and download files, and sometimes play games.

The first BBS, patterned after the community notice-board in a supermarket, was fielded in Chicago in 1978. Over the next eighteen years over a hundred thousand BBSes flashed in and out of existence, typically run out of the sysop’s bedroom or garage with a spare computer.

From 1984 the BBS culture evolved a primitive form of internetworking called “FidoNet” that supported cross-site email and a forum system broadly resembling USENET. There were also a few ports of UUCP to DOS personal computers, but none gained any real traction. Thus the UUCP and BBS cultures remained separate until both were ploughed under by the Internet.

During a very brief period after 1990, just before mass-market Internet, software with BBS-like capabilities but supporting multiple simultaneous modem users (and often offering USENET access) got written for low-cost Unix systems. The end-stage BBSes, when they survived, moved to the Web and dropped modem access. The history of chronicles this period.

A handful of BBSes are still run by nostalgicists, and some artifacts from the culture are still preserved. But, like the UUCP network, the BBS culture as a whole collapsed when inexpensive Internet became widely available.

Almost the only cultural memory of BBSes left is around a family of file-transfer protocols – XMODEM, YMODEM, and ZMODEM – developed shortly before BBSes and primarily used on them. For hackers of that day who did not cut their teeth on minicomputers with native TCP/IP, these were a first introduction to concepts like packetization, error detection, and retransmission. To this day (2018), hardware from at least one commercial router vendor (Cisco) accepts software patches by XMODEM upload through a serial port.

Also roughly contemporaneous with USENET and the BBS culture, and also destroyed or absorbed by cheap Internet, were some commercial timesharing services supporting dialup access by modem, of which the best known were AOL (America Online) CompuServe, and GEnie; others included The Source and Prodigy. These provided BBS-like facilities. Every hacker knew of these, though few used them. They have left no traces at all in today’s hacker culture.

One last tier of pre-Internets, operating from about 1981 to about 1991 with isolated survivals into the 2000s, was various academic wide-area networks using leased-line telephone links: CSNET, BITNET, EARN, VIDYANET, and others. These generally supported email and file-transfer services that would be recognizable to Internet users, though with different addressing schemes and some odd quirks (such as not being 8-bit clean). They have left some traces today. Notably, the term “listserv” for an electronic mailing list, still occasionally used today, derives from an email reflector used on BITNET….