Chattering Masses Began with a Bright Idea in a Blizzard That Changed World; Social Networking Celebrates a Landmark Birthday Today, as David Williamson Explains

Article excerpt

Byline: David Williamson

THIRTY years ago today two friends staged a revolution in human communication.

Ward Christensen and Randy Suess were members of the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists Exchange.

This was a monthly gathering of technology fans who had built their own computers.

The two enthusiasts discussed the idea of having an electronic bulletin board for the club. They were fascinated by the notion that instead of having to pin up notices on a board it might be possible to leave messages on a computer that could be accessed using a telephone.

A blizzard hit Chicago and the men were snowbound. Their isolation gave Christensen the time he needed to write the programs which could make their concept a reality. Meanwhile, Suess went to work on the hardware.

On February 16, 1978, the Computerised Bulletin Board System (CBBS) was launched. According to the legend which surrounds this event, the first message had been successfully posted a fortnight earlier, but the friends were embarrassed to admit they had pulled off a technological triumph in just two weeks.

Anyone with a computer, a modem and a telephone could dial the CBBS number. The phone wouldring for a few seconds while the floppy disk drive was turned on, and then the user could read messages and post new ones.

It was a slow business. Text was transferred at a rate of just five words a second.

The idea that in less than three decades teenagers would be downloading Hollywood movies would never have entered the minds of the first users, but Christensen and Suess were the Wright Brothers of online networking.

Face book and My Space are the latest wonders in an evolutionary journey which started one February in Chicago.

The bulletin board had been intended for club members, people who were fascinated by computers which inmost cases were glorified calculators. But within months the significance of their invention was clear.

By 1980 11,000 people around the world were using the board.

Most would not have even shaken hands in "real" life, but this was a genuine community of people who could grasp the potential of microchips to define the closing decades of the 20th century.

These pioneers needed patience. …