BBS Joey Coleman, Before the Internet

1991 was a special year for me, it was the first time I heard the beautiful sound of a dial-up modem.

Grade 4 started at Prince of Wales, and then I ended up at Hess Street School. (I moved a lot) Being at Hess was a transformative experience, for so many reasons.

The majority of students at Hess Street School spoke English as their second language. I was two percentile points short of the requirement to be in a gifted school, the year prior I'd taken the gifted test, but there were whole sections of the test containing concepts I'd not been taught. (The School Board now evaluates gifted students with balancing of socio-economic factors)

My teacher, one of my best teachers, channeled my energies into learning computers.

Sure, in 1991, Internet existed, but not in Hamilton - except for maybe a few computers at McMaster University.

Before the Internet, there were bulletin board systems.

One of the computers had a modem. My memory says it was a 1200 baud, but only because I got really excited when I returned to Hess Street for Grade 6 and there as a 2400 baud modem.

With that modem, I would call BBS', which were computer servers connected to a series of phone lines. I loved this world, it was small and managable.

Each day, it's what I looked forward to doing, but first, I had to complete a task.

My teacher set a goal of teaching me how to properly type on a computer with All The Right Type, ATRT lessons were my currancy for BBS time. I learned how to type, and to get really quick at it.

The Hamilton BBS scene with TheSpec at the Centre

The first computer I dialed up each day was on the other end of 416-522-3422. Everyone in Hamilton's BBS scene seemed to call that number first to reach CompuSpec - the Hamilton Spectator's BBC.

CompuSpec was the digital arm of The Hamilton Spectator, and an online pioneer in the newspaper industry. Launched in 1985 or 1986 (sources conflict), if you were online in Hamilton, CompuSpec was your first destination each day.

I loved the CompuSpec chat rooms, and the stories that sometimes went up before the afternoon newspaper hit the streets. (TheSpec was an afternoon paper at the time, and I'd walk to the Central Library in the evening to wait in line to read the newspaper)

Here's how a 1995 email archived by the Electronic Frontier Foundation described CompuSpec:

Offers local news, columns and feature stories from the printed paper, live "chat," and e-mail conferences sponsored by advertisers. A recently announced joint venture between Southam, Inc., The Spectator's parent company, and Prodigy could mean that CompuSpec will be merged into the Prodigy network. Prodigy's Canadian trials are set to begin in the fourth quarter of 1994. (Source: Interactive Publishing Alert)

The New York Times noted CompuSpec in an August 1993 article about newspapers preparing to offer electronic sites (the Internet was in its infancy, BBS still ruled the day), citing how CompuSpec posted an achieve of recipes from its retired cooking writer.

The CompuSpec service I used most was the BBS phone number listing. It was Yahoo! before the Internet (Yahoo was the Google of the early internet).

TheSpec dominated Hamilton's pre-internet scene, sadly, just as the Internet came to Hamilton's households in 1996, executives at TheSpec started retreating from the electronic world.

We all know the result of that squandered opportunity.

I only remember one local BBS by name, AARDVARK. I can't recall if it was the one with this space pirate/wars multi-player text based game; whichever BBS that was, I loved playing that game.

There were dozens of local BBS', has a list of many of them.

It was a fun world, one that I lamented the loss of with the rise of the Internet. I only got to spend two school years on BBS' at Hess Street, 91/92 in Grade 4, and 93/94 in Grade 6. (I even skipped out of Grade 6 grad for one less time on a BBS)

When I would next have access to a computer, it be 1996 and I'll be in high school. That's a post for another day.