Visualizing 314: The St. Louis scene in charts

This is the second part of a three-part series.

It’s chart time! In this post you can explore several graphs that show facets of the St. Louis BBS scene.

Here are links to the other parts of the series:

Chart 1: The rise and fall of BBSes

On this chart you can clearly see the height of the St. Louis BBS scene was from July 1993 until June 1995, the peak month being June 1994.

I will let Fire Escape describe these years. The following passage comes from a document she wrote called “From the BBS Backroads to the Information Super Highway (or Where Did All The BBSes Go?!?)”

These were the best two years for the local BBS community in St. Louis. Between 1992 and 1994 processors and modems became faster and cheaper. Hard drives became bigger and cheaper. BBS softwares were being written and a new hybrid version seemed to pop up every few months. Boards were bursting with users, sometimes as many as 60 people a day per node for your average system. Busy signals were a common problem during this era of BBSing. Many terminal programs now implemented the “Auto-redial” feature which up until this point, hadn’t really been necessary when calling a BBS.

But after June 1995, the scene began to collapse. Fire Escape called this the “great migration.” She said it all started with the advent of Netscape in early 1995:

Slowly over the next year, users began to explore this newly discovered alternative to BBSing. The media played up the internet and browser software began to appear left and right. By early 1996, internet providers were calling to BBSers and non-computer users from every computer magazine, newspaper and BBS. By the middle of 1996, the great migration (as I like to call it) was beginning to have an effect on the local BBS community.

As user activity on the BBSes began to decline, sysops became discouraged and closed up shop. The number of BBSes began to fall, first a few, then a few more and finally a landslide. … St. Louis was turning into a BBS Ghost-Town.

Chart 2: Software

It seems like everyone and their uncle wrote their own flavor of BBS software. Over the years, Fire Escape noted almost 50 different individual BBS software programs. But there were more than that! She wouldn’t give BBS software its own unique code if there weren’t more than two BBSes running that software in St. Louis. Instead she would list them under “miscellaneous” or “unknown.”

I showed the top BBS software packages on the chart and hid the rest to make it easier to read. But there’s LOTS to explore. You can change what is displayed on the graph — just click the names of the software packages in the legend.

It might be worth turning off “WWIV,” which was clearly the dominant BBS software and skews the rest of the graph. When you do that, you might notice the decline of the older program Opus, or the swift rise of Wildcat, among other trends.

Here’s what Fire Escape had to say about WWIV:

Due to Wayne Bell’s early seeding of the BBS community here [in] the late 1980’s, by the early 90’s WWIV or World War IV BBS software was the most common BBS software to be found.

Chart 3: Speed

2400 baud was the top speed of most BBSes until the summer of 1993, when sysops began upgrading to 14,400 in a big way.

Early in 1997, at the tail end of the scene, 28,800 displaced 14,400.

I personally used a 2400 baud modem for most these years. I probably upgraded to a high-speed modem somewhere around 1998 when I began using the graphical web in earnest at home.

Chart 4: Graphics formats

In my mind, BBSes have always meant text interfaces — whether ASCII, ANSI, VT52, or ATASCII. I used an Atari ST for most of my BBSing years, and its default text mode was VT52. But I was able to call ANSI BBSes using ANSIterm by Eric March.

This chart shows the number of BBSes that supported the “Remote Imaging Protocol” (RIP) or some other special graphical emulation. With RIP, a BBS could offer vector graphics and a mouse-driven interface for users who had a compatible terminal or client. Quite an upgrade over the limitations of ANSI text.

Because I used an Atari ST, I remained unaware of RIP for quite some time. Until I saw this chart, I honestly had no idea just how many St. Louis boards had offered it. I was quite surprised.

I remember trying to experience RIP many years later, by seeking out an Atari ST program called STrip by Lars Kupferschläger. The problem was hardware. RIP used the PC’s 16-color 640×350 EGA mode. But the Atari’s 16-color mode was limited to a resolution of 320×200. So STrip required the Atari’s 640×400 “high” resolution, which unfortunately offered only a black and white monochrome palette. Since I didn’t own a high-res monitor, I couldn’t use STrip. What a letdown. RIP remained an enigma to me until decades later when I could try it in emulation.

Chart 5: BBSes with adult/sexual content

As I explain in The directories, the data, and the caveats the pre-1997 data on BBSes that offered “adult” or sexual content is somewhat inconsistent and probably unreliable.

This graph shows a decline in adult BBSes after 1993, and then a sudden jump in early 1997. I believe this is due to the way Fire Escape noted adult boards in her directory. Her use of the “adult” label was inconsistent until 1997 when she changed the format of her directory and added a dedicated “adult” code.

I never called any of St. Louis’ adult BBSes, so I wasn’t familiar with this is part of the scene. But it was undoubtedly important — some of St. Louis’ biggest BBSes were adult systems, like the multiline “Affinity” and “Hotflash” boards.

What do you think?

Do you remember the St. Louis BBS scene? How does this jibe with your memories? Or maybe you lived in a different city, and maybe your scene wasn’t dominated by WWIV the way ours was in 314. I’d love to hear memories of your local BBS scene in the comments.

If you want to learn more about the data behind these charts, or if you’d like to download the directories and the dataset, then continue on to part three of this series:

5 thoughts on “Visualizing 314: The St. Louis scene in charts

  1. Amit Patel

    Interesting. 1993 was around the time Al Gore opened up the internet to the public, and people probably started moving from BBSes to the internet around then. His work also led to the first widely used web browser, which also probably drew in lots of people.

  2. Aaron Obst

    I proudly stake my claim in that 300-1200 bps range … But I also ran on a C64 and spent several days downloading an ASCII capable dialer with a scammed (under 21) account from Affinity.

    I believe I started about 91 and went till I left for the military in 93 and even then I dialed back into some STL ones from North Carolina in 96 lol. I actually found my printed off dialing list and still to this day trying to figure out how I had enough time to dial in to so many of those damn boards actually read and post to the various threads lol.

  3. Todd Tevlin

    I started BBSing in 1984. Too bad you can’t go back that far to see where those numbers are. These charts are cool, thanks for doing them!

    These charts also make me realize exactly how long I BBSed back then. Started in ’84 and ended right exactly when your charts show the migration over to the internet. (although for me I was on the internet in 1993, but didn’t stop BBSing till a few years after that.) That’s 10+ years of hearing that squelching sound off my modem. Ah, good times.

  4. Bryan V

    “the peak month being June 1994”

    That’s around the time I quit the scene prior to moving to Columbia. Guess it was all downhill from there…

    BTW re the advent of Netscape, I was sitting in the computer lab at Mizzou that had some of the hundreds of SGI workstations they owned when the sysadmin came in to install Netscape on the cluster and show us. I was like “oh so it’s like a slightly better Mosaic… that’s cool”.


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