Ten Years on The Ledge
By Joseph Sheppard
Sysop, The Ledge PCBoard BBS
I graduated from high school in 1977, before computers were a part of the classroom experience in public school. By 1982, I was living with my girlfriend, Jane, and her two children in a small two bedroom house in Sunland, California. We were young enough at that time that the idea of a fun date was to leave the kids with Grandma and go to a video arcade and play Pac-Man.
At some point in 1982, I was wandering the aisles of the friendly local Kmart and started looking over the home video game consoles. Atari, Colecovision and Intellivision were popular units at the time. But, one system caught my eye because it wasn’t only a video game machine, it also claimed to be a computer. It was the Commodore VIC-20.
I told my girlfriend that we could probably make the cost of the computer back in savings from the arcade if we bought it and just stayed home to play. I was certain that we would never use the computer part, but having a computer in the house for the kids couldn’t be a bad thing.
The next thing anyone knew, I was parked in front of our TV set with the VIC-20 hooked up to it, typing in PEEK and POKE commands until the wee hours of the morning. After hours of debugging my work, I would type RUN and get something like my name in flashing colors on the screen.
When 1983 rolled around I found myself back at Kmart looking at accessories for the VIC-20. I came across something called the VIC-Modem. It claimed to be a doorway into an online community where other geeks like myself could congregate and trade tips, and tricks. The cost was $99.00 for the 300 baud modem. I put it on a credit card.
Once I got home it was a bit confusing figuring out how to connect to the online world. The modem came with a membership in something called Compuserve, and gave me a few free hours on the service. I logged on the first time, and was very confused. I had no idea how to navigate the menus. But, in time I figured it out and became a regular on the Commodore SIG (Special Interest Group).
Later that year, Jane and I got married, and we had our first child together. We moved up to a larger house a few miles up the hill in Tujunga. Around that time, a full on home computer system, that included a letter quality printer caught my eye. It wasn’t long before I got rid of my Commodore and bought a Coleco Adam.
I was already online at Compuserve, so I bought the Adamlink modem and joined the Adam SIG. About that time, Coleco dropped the Adam, and we all became orphans.
A guy named Jon Badeaux joined the SIG and started posting ads about his company “Video Take-Out”. He said that they would not abandon the Adam, and that they had plenty of items for sale. He even set up a free BBS for Adam users called “The Adam Hotline”. I noticed that the BBS was in North Hollywood, which was a local call from Tujunga. I had become addicted to Compuserve over the last year, they charged by the minute, and was running up bills around $200.00 per month. I really needed to find some kind of outlet that was free. So, I dialed into The Hotline.
I was imagining that The Hotline and Video Take Out were huge corporations. I was shocked that within a few moments of logging on to the BBS, I was pulled into chat by Jon Badeaux himself!
We chatted back and forth and in a short time he told me that he had a lot of traveling to do, and asked if I would be interested in becoming the Co-Sysop of The Adam Hotline.
I was still thinking that this must be some rich guy in an office that probably was probably dark with all kinds of computers and flashing lights. I also thought that maybe this might end up being a paying gig. I asked him what was involved. He told me that I would just need to dial in once a day or so when he was away and answer questions and upgrade access levels for people who signed up. When I asked about the pay, he just laughed, but said he would send me some free stuff for my Adam if I helped him out. That’s how I became a Co-Sysop.
I helped Jon out on The Hotline for a long time. I would sometimes call his sister-in-law, Celeste and ask her to reboot the Apple //e that ran the BBS.
Around 1986, I had an old Commodore 64 at work that I was organizing some lists with in my department. I had a modem for it, and downloaded a BBS program. I left it running one night, and called it “Uncle Joe’s BBS”. I got a few callers on it, who used a protocol I believe was unique to the Commodore called Punter to download and upload programs. It really didn’t go very far, and I took it down when I left the company in May of that year.
At the new company I was in charge of the computers. So, I asked Jon what I should do. He said, “buy IBM clones”. So, we went out and bought some Leading Edge Model D computers. These cost just a hair under $2,000.00 at the time, but included an PC compatible 4.77 MHz computer running MS/DOS, a monitor, keyboard and hard disk. I liked it so much, I bought one for my house, along with a 1200 baud modem.
I talked the system up so much to Jon, that he bought one too. We discovered a small BBS program called Minihost, and both put it online for each of us to call. I had long since given up using the family phone line, since I was keeping it busy all the time. I had my own data line, so I could just leave Minihost running.
One thing leads to another, and I became acquainted with the local PC compatible BBS’s in the neighborhood. One was Mog-URS EMS run by Tom Tcimpidis. He had a great system with lots of shareware available for download. At some point, I found a BBS program called “PCBoard”. A guy named Fred Clark had written it. Fred didn’t come off as very friendly in his documentation. Basically it said that if you didn’t know how to run the program, you shouldn’t even try. And whatever you did you should never contact Fred for help with the program.
I thought it might be fun to try to get it working. I found it to be no trouble at all. So, I replaced Minihost with PCBoard. Jon and I really liked it. I had the phone line and the computer. Why not just announce it around the SIGS and boards and see what happened?
I wasn’t sure what to call my BBS. But, in the excitement over our new Leading Edge Model D computers, Jon and I had started to refer to them in shorthand. “My Leading Edge” became “My L-Edge”. “My L-Edge” became “My Ledge”. I decided to call the BBS, “The Ledge”.
I made up an ANSI graphic screen that scrolled slowly down the users monitor and started out saying “You are on….THE LEDGE”. The BBS officially opened to the public on January 15, 1987.
At the beginning, I had a 20 megabyte hard disk that had all my stuff on it, and still had about 15 megs available for the BBS. I figured that this was enough, and I probably wouldn’t need a bigger hard drive.
After a few months, I was out of space. I was getting a lot of uploaded files from callers. It was all really good stuff, and it appeared that I had found a way to stop calling out to find new stuff. People were bringing all the latest shareware right to my own computer!
I found a bank that wanted to sell a used hard drive. It was a Maxtor 70 meg drive. These were very hard to find, and really expensive. I got a great deal for $1,000.00. I promised Jane that I would never need to buy another hard disk, because even if I ended up with every shareware file in the PC universe, I still couldn’t fill 70 megabytes.
Jon closed “The Adam Hotline” and opened up another BBS on a Leading Edge simply called “The Hotline”. I was still his Co-Sysop, and he was my Co-Sysop. We would watch each other’s BBS when the other was out of town. We used programs like “Doorway” that would allow us to drop to DOS and run programs remotely to fix problems and such.
Over time The Ledge became a very popular BBS in the 818 area code, that was local to most of the San Fernando Valley. I developed a loyal following. Some users were interested only in the downloadable files, others were interested in online discussions. As a particular topic would start to take over the main board, I would open “Conferences” for those topics. The political forum on The Ledge became very busy, generating over 100 messages a day, which was a lot for a local BBS.
One day I received a message from a fellow claiming to be a reporter from the Los Angeles Times. He said that he was doing a story on the BBS scene, and wanted to interview me.
I was thrilled, and accepted. He told me that I would receive a call from a photographer who would come out a day or so before he did.
The photographer called me and asked if I could have a soft core pornographic image on the screen behind me when he shot the photos.
I stopped him cold in his tracks and said, “what?”. He explained that the article would be about pornography being available on BBS systems.
Back in those days we didn’t have GIF’s and JPG’s yet. We had something called ReadMacs. These were very low resolution digital images originally scanned on a Macintosh computer. The PC world had developed a program called “ReadMac” so you could see these pictures on a PC. They were mostly grainy, and since most home users didn’t yet have color screens, you had to look at them on a monochrome monitor in shades of amber or green.
I refused to be photographed or interviewed. I also went though the Ledge file library and removed any and all adult material that had been uploaded by the users.
On Christmas day, the L.A. Times printed an expose on the BBS world, claiming that it was a hiding place for pornographers and pedophiles. I was very happy NOT to have my smiling face at the top of that article.
When my Father read the article, he asked me why the press seemed so negative about what we were doing. I told him that the only thing I could think of was that they knew that the day would come when the general public would prefer to get their news by computer over TV or newspapers. He looked at me like I must be crazy.
I had been aware for a while of the Fido concept where BBS’s called each other in the middle of the night to trade messages and files. When Mark “Sparky” Herring made that concept available for PCBoard with is QWK Mail software, I jumped on the bandwagon.
The original test group for the software had been called PCB-Echo. That group was about to expand. I called up Jim Fouch, the Sysop of Sleepy Hollow BBS in Beverly Hills and asked to be put on the list.
We formed an association of PCBoard BBS’s called “InterLink”. Sleepy Hollow was the regional hub for the west coast. Each night The Ledge would go offline for an “Event”. During the event, certain maintenance was performed. One of the tasks was to run QWK-Mail. It would scan all of my message bases to find new messages that had been written by Ledge users since the last event. Then it would pack them all into a file called LEDGE.QWK. I had to put together a script with Qmodem to call Sleepy Hollow, and upload the .QWK packet to the QWK-Mail door on Sleepy Hollow, and download a file called LEDGE.REP. Once this was done, the Qmodem script would hang up and terminate, and QWK-Mail would be run again to insert the LEDGE.REP file, which contained new messages from other BBS’s into the Ledge message bases.
To the users of The Ledge, this meant that they could ask a question in one of our local forums and the answer might come back from someone in New York in a day or two. At the time, we all thought it was fantastic that people could communicate like that without making a long distance phone call.
Of course, a lot of long distance and toll calls were being made by the Sysops. We were footing the bill for this enterprise that would soon reach around the world.
My users started to complain that they often had to wait hours to get on the system. It was busy all the time. So, I asked them if I were to put out the money to install a network and some additional computers and modems, if they would consider paying, say, $40.00 per year to access the system if I guaranteed a limited number of subscribers per line.
The response was positive. I bought a network starter kit called LANtastic from Artisoft, and another PC. I told the callers that I would take no more than 50 subscribers to the new “Ledge VIP Service”. After the first month, the new computer was sold out for the year. So, I bought another system, and that sold out too.
Pretty soon, the subscribers were asking to be able to use credit cards. My bank was totally disinterested when I told them my business had something to do with computers. I heard that Discover Card was looking for new merchants, so I called them. They gladly accepted The Ledge, and also offered to process Visa and Mastercard for me.
One of the Sysops echoing messages out of Sleepy Hollow was Samuel Smith. He ran a BBS called “The Tool Shop”, and specialized in add-on programs for PCBoard called “Doors”. Sam wrote a great door for PCBoard called “ProDoor”, that allowed users to run file transfer protocols like Zmodem that were not directly supported in PCBoard.
I started running ProDoor and participating in beta testing for it. In time, ProDoor had so many features that some people were running it like a stand-alone BBS. Sam programmed with Borland Turbo Pascal, and released a set of tools called “ProKit”. ProKit included all the routines a novice programmer might need to easily write their own door programs for PCBoard. So, I went to Egghead Software and bought the Borland compiler and a book on how to program with Turbo Pascal.
Soon, I was writing doors for PCBoard. My first was TextView, which allowed BBS’s to display online magazines. USA Today had started making an electronic version of their newspaper available for display by BBS systems, and TextView was a perfect way to display the data. I wrote several more door programs including “BBSList”, “Ddoor” and “Ringdoor”.
I also wrote a little utility called ATSend, which I originally made up just to take my phone line off the hook during events. But, then I realized I could write a command line version where people could send any command to the modem from the DOS prompt. Much to my amazement, people are still using this program today. For some reason WinModem’s, which weren’t even invented when I wrote the program work with ATSend, and there are people out there that swear it is the only solution to whatever problem they are having. This program really developed a life of its own. I received a letter from a fire department once thanking me for the program because it was the one they used to page their firemen when they were away from the firehouse.
Life was pretty good. I had paying subscribers, and my shareware programs were bringing in regular registrations that I ran on my credit card machine.
There came a time when a group of InterLink Sysops who were running subscription BBS’s became upset with the management of the network because we felt that they were being heavy handed and sometimes rude to our users. The end result was that we broke away from InterLink (which later was renamed “Ilink”), and formed a new network called U’NI-net. U’NI-net was pronounced “You and I Net”, but most of us called it “You-Nee-Net”.
The three people who really got U’NI-net off the ground were Jim Fouch, Vic Kass from RoseMedia BBS in Canada and myself. We decided to try to be the kinder-gentler echomail network. Instead of “Moderators” we had “Hosts”. Instead of “Rules” we had “Guidelines”. We also had a procedure for problem users where the local Sysop was expected to handle any problems locally, in private. If a Sysop failed to handle the problem, then he risked having his connection with U’NI-net terminated.
Before we knew it we had about 300 systems from around the globe. We had approximately 130 conference topics and were exchanging about 30,000 messages per month. I was appointed the job of International Host for the network, which meant that The Ledge was the system that all the regional hubs connected to. I was also in charge of the day to day management of the network. I reported to a group made up of all the regional hubs, who answered to their local Sysops.
The Ledge was so popular that I was being asked to write articles for computer magazines. Nick Anis contacted me and asked me to write material for “Dvorak’s Guide to PC Telecommunications”. I ended up writing the glossary of online terms for that book, and am mentioned in the acknowledgements. Jon Badeaux and I ended up on a radio station in Los Angeles giving tips and tricks to computer users. Our show was called “Online with Jon and Joe”. I went to the doctor at my HMO one day and after examining me, he said, “Are you the Sheppard from The Ledge?”. He was a long time user. I was becoming some kind of minor celebrity.
Then the 90’s came, and with it rumors of public access to the Internet. At first, I thought that the BBS systems would be the gateway to the Internet for the common folk.
I opened a UUCP account with a company called Netcom. This allowed me to use a program called uuPCB to create internet compatible packets from my message bases. Then a program called UUCICO connected with Netcom over the telephone line and transferred inbound and outbound email to and from The Ledge. The effect of this was that my users now had internet email addresses. I became email@example.com. I included this service for my subscribers at no extra charge, hoping that this would keep them from opening shell accounts with Netcom themselves.
It worked for a while, until the web became known. Then, one by one, my subscribers began to vanish and open dial-up accounts with ISP’s that were popping up everywhere.
By 1996, The Ledge still was the U’NI-net International Host, but locally, the user base had fallen off dramatically. The handwriting was on the wall, but I wanted to make it ten years, since it was so close.
On January 15, 1997, exactly ten years after I opened The Ledge, my wife and Kids and I stood in the den. I faked blowing taps by making a bugle sound with my lips. We all stood there and saluted, and I turned all the computers off one by one. Our den was silent for the first time that any of us could remember.
Today, I am still active in the online world. I am webmaster for several sites for friends and associates. But, nothing has ever matched the feeling of community we had in the BBS days. I don’t think there will be anything like it again. I enjoy hearing from my former users. I can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have a personal website at http://www.josephsheppard.net.
The Ledge was gone, but thanks to websites like http://www.textfiles.com, not forgotten.