BBS History – ANSI Art

Back in the day, when the Internet was being used predominately by the military or a handful of academic institutions, common people with computers and modems were communicating and exchanging files via Bulletin Board Systems. Most of those systems were simple home computers, with modem and a landline or two, multiple floppy drives for file storage, running software that allowed remote access over the phone with a simple text terminal.

BBSes were more often than not networked with each other through amateur Fidonet network, allowing exchange of private (similar to today’s emails) and public messages (I’d say similar to usenet groups, but most probably nobody remembers them anymore, so let’s say similar to today’s web forums), as well as files.

The speed of my first modem was 1200 bits per second. Accounting for all the overhead here and there, the average speed of transmission was more or less the speed my dot matrix printer was able to print with – approximately 70-100 characters per second. Given that, and the fact that the simple text terminals were used, if the SysOp wanted to make his BBS look more attractive, it could not be done with the use of images as we know them from the nowadays web sites. The bitmap images had to be prepared, and converted to simple black-and-white characters from the ASCII set:

Codepage 437 character set

The results were nice:

A printout of the terminal session with Rainbow BBS in Poland (2:480/39@fidonet), year 1993.

However, if we take those same characters, and use the special escape sequences of control characters added in the stream to change the color of the incoming portions of text, the effects can be much more impressive:

ANSI art by Titoos

The sequences were proposed by the American National Standards Institute as a mean to standardize the terminal control characters (i.e. the sequences that moved the cursor, cleared the terminal screen, changed colors, etc), and were called the ANSI Code. Therefore, the artwork created with the use of the code was called ANSI-art. For the MS-DOS machines to properly react to the codes, ANSI.SYS driver had to be loaded.

Today, with Internet accessible on every phone and every computer, BBSes, dial-up access and ANSI Code practically disappeared. Fortunately, some of the systems survived, and their SysOps are bringing them back to life, making them accessible through the Internet instead of the phone line.

Top Secret BBS (2:480/25@fidonet)
Curt Vendel’s The New Star Trek Bulletin Board running on 8-bit Atari 800

There are also people that think about setting up BBS now, from scratch. Those will need new ANSI-art, and for those I’ve managed to rediscover the methods of converting the bitmap images to ANSI Code files – stay tuned for the next article.


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