Randy Suess (1945 – 2019)

Randy Suess in 2004 as he appeared in BBS: The Documentary. Photo: Jason Scott

This weblog post is published on the 42nd anniversary (2020-02-16) of the opening of the CBBS (1978-02-16), the world’s first bulletin board service. It also commemorates the life of Randy John Suess (1945-01-27 – 2019-12-10). Born in Skokie, Illinois, Suess served for two years in the U.S. Navy, before attending the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. He worked for IBM and Zenith.

In the 1970s, Suess was an amateur radio operator, with call sign WB9GPM. He was an active member of the Chicago FM Club, where he helped with maintenance on their extensive radio repeater systems.

However, Suess is most famously remembered as the co-founder and hardware developer of the first bulletin board system (BBS), along with partner and software developer Ward Christensen (1945 – ). They met as members of the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists’ Exchange, or CACHE about 1975. Development of the BBS started during the Great Blizzard in Chicago, and was officially online (an expression not used at the time) as CBBS = Computerized Bulletin Board System, on 1978-02-16.

The early development of this and other bulletin board systems is documented in a previous weblog post, and more extensively in BBS: The Documentary an 8-episode documentary series created by computer historian Jason Scott, made from 2001-07 to 2004-12.

The CBBS consisted of a S-100 computer with an 8-bit, ca. 1 MHz processor, 64kB RAM and two single-sided 8″ diskettes each holding 173 kB formed the basis of the system, along with a Hayes MicroModem 100 running at 300 baud. The operating system was CP/M, but it ran other software was written in 8080 assembler, and automatically loaded whenever someone dialed in at: 312-545-8086.

Attention to detail was important for the survival of the system. The floppy disk drive motors ran from mains electricity, and quickly burned out if left on. So the system was modified by Suess to turn itself on when the phone rang, and to keep going for a few seconds after the caller had finished to let the computer save its data, and then quietly go back to sleep. A unique feature of CBBS, was that if callers typed inappropriate words, these would be recognized and the system would log the caller out. Entering too many unproductive keystrokes would have the same effect.

Suess hosted CBBS, because his house in the Wrigleyville section of Chicago could be called without paying long-distance charges by anyone in Chicago. By the time the system was retired in the 1980s, its single phone line had logged over 11 000 unique users, and received more than 500 000 calls. A version of CBBS has run periodically, more than forty years after its inception, demonstrating the state of technology at the end of the 1970s.

Because of his interest in Unix systems, in 1982 he created the world’s first public-access Unix system, then called “wlcrjs”. In 1984 this became Chinet (Chicago Network), which connected to the internet through a satellite radio. It ran on one of the earliest Compaq portable machines, with a 4 MHz 8088 processor, 640kB of memory, and a 10 MB hard drive.

In the early days of Chinet, the Internet was still a research tool, unavailable to the general public. E-mail and newsgroup accounts were obtained from a university computer or a BBS-like system. There were no ISPs (Internet Service Providers). E-mail and newsgroup postings were relayed from one computer to the next using UUCP (Unix-to-Unix Copy), a suite of computer programs/ protocols allowing remote execution of commands and transfer of files, email and netnews between computers, mostly at night, mostly over regular telephone lines at 1200 or 2400 Baud. The entire content on the internet was so small that it could be downloaded in a single evening. This meant that Chicago area users could browse a global collection of data without paying long-distance telephone rates.

In the late 80’s, Chinet had 12 dialup ports for between 300 and 600 active users. Later these were replaced with 22 phone lines that connected to a bank of modems, operating at considerably higher speeds. Eventually, the UUCP model became obsolete, with more companies getting direct Internet access, and ISPs offering inexpensive access to consumers. Chinet’s dial-up port usage started to decline.

Chinet then started using PicoSpan to replace its BBS software. Eventually, yapp (Yet Another Picospan Program) replaced PicoSpan and remained in use until Chinet migrated from Unix shell-based access to web based interfaces in the late 1990’s.

Despite a fire in 1996-05, Chinet still exits today, entirely web-based, running Simple Machines Forum software on a Debian GNU/Linux system.

Suess was married twice, first to Agnes Kluck and then to Dawn Hendricks, both marriages ended in divorce. He had two daughters, Karrie and Christine and one son, Ryan.

Randy Suess died 2019-12-10 in Chicago, Illinois. Currently, CBBS is operative, with information available about Randy Suess and his death.

Full disclosure: I am a registered user of CBBS/ Chinet, Chicago.

Revisiting BBS

BBS: The Documentary is an 8-episode documentary about the bulletin board system (BBS) subculture. It was created by computer historian Jason Scott, from July 2001 to December 2004. A DVD of the series were first made available in May 2005, released under the Creative Commons Attribute-ShareAlike 2.0 and later under 3.0 license.

My intention in mentioning such an old series is not simply nostalgia. Instead, I want it to point to a future, beyond the Internet, where there is a need for small groups of people – family and friends – to keep in contact.

BBS development was first started over forty years ago, during The Great Blizzard of 1978 in Chicago by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess. It was officially launched as CBBS four weeks later, on 1978-02-16.

What happened from the late 1970s until well into the 1990s was that different BBSes attracted different user groups. There were, for example, BBSes that focused on a particular operating system, such as the Amiga. There were others that had a focus on a particular religious orientation. Others had a focus on music.

Then came the internet, and the World Wide Web… and people stopped using BBSes.

Nostalgia, personified with an Amiga 3000 Desktop System, running a 2 line BBS System. (Photo: GNU-FDL 1994 CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Some confusion arises in computer discussions because many people don’t understand the difference between a net and a web (to keep to three letter words). To make it worse, some people use the terms interchangeably. I understand the confusion, because most people don’t have to deal with the physical net at all. A router is plugged in, and in less than five minutes they are connected to the internet, or is it the world wide web?

Nets are physical. Devices connected to a router (in a house, school or other building) form a local area network (LAN). There may be a number of intermediate networks, but at some point this conglomeration of equipment becomes part of a wide area network (WAN). Within a physically distributed organization, such as a school board with many different schools, or a company with many physically separate branch offices, these can be connected together into an intranet, which is a private net. The internet is the ultimate net of nets.

In contrast, a web is an information space, with vast amounts of content, which is identified using a URL (Unique Resource Locator). This content can be accessed (transferred) using facilities of the internet. Information available for access is stored on a web server, which can be located anywhere in the world. Protocols, such as HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) are used to transfer data from a web server to a web browser, and from there to file systems. In today’s world, HTTPS,  a secure (encrypted) HTTP variant is most often used. This said, there are other protocols needed to ensure communication. For example, TCP/IP  (Transmission Control Protocol/ Internet Protocol) is used to move packets of information.  There are a large number of protocols that form an internet protocol suite. Most users do not need to know anything about these, because the details are handled by a web browser.

The web most people know and love, is one that is traversed by search-engine crawlers. These note what they find, and their results are made available on search-engines like Google and Bing. Frequently, this is given the name World Wide Web. However, it is increasingly being called the Surface Web.

Beneath the surface web, is the deep web. Search-engines are prohibited from accessing numerous servers hosting website data. The adjective sensitive followed by by other adjectives including, but not restricted to, military, government, corporate or personal, and ending with the noun, data, all form part of a larger web, an assemblage of data that potentially can be accessed, if not by everyone, at least by people who have the necessary authorizations, for their small fraction of the deep web.

Within the deep web, is a dark web. Some only see it as pure evil, lawless and unregulated, a place used by criminals to promote illegal weapons and drugs. Others regard it as a haven, using heavily encrypted content so that dissidents, and people persecuted for their believes, sexual orientations, and other disparities with conventions, can communicate with the outside world.

Return to the Past

In the 1980s and beyond, elite, WaReZ or pirate BBSes distributed cracked software and other unlawful content. They co-existed with more family friendly boards that avoided seedier content. This mirrors today’s situation. People haven’t changed, but the technology has.

My interest in the dark web stems from privacy concerns. I do not regard the tracking of anyone’s personal beliefs and activities to be a legitimate right of governments, mega-corporations or anyone else. Before and during World War II, information found in population registers was used by governments in Europe (and elsewhere) to arrest, imprison, torture and kill ordinary people, who had committed no crime, but were regarded as deviant. It is difficult to know how governments in the future will react, but there are signs that everyone should be on guard.

Thus, it is in everyone’s best interest to question their personal use of the internet and, especially, their connectivity to mega-sites, such as Facebook and Google. There are legitimate reasons for accessing the dark web. To do so requires the services of a dark net. There are two approaches in use today: friend-to-friend networks and privacy networks.

A friend-to-friend (or F2F) computer network allows users to make direct connections with people they know. Retroshare is an example of a F2F network. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zVVxtwEdps

Privacy networks require a more advanced approach, and is more appropriate for people with special needs. People interested in the topic may find this 7 minute video of interest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWlNDH8geWs