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A history of Starbase1 BBS.

Starbase 1 was an old fashioned Bulletin Board System I used to run. For those too young to remember the days before the Internet, this meant it was a home PC that you dialled directly, that sat in a corner of my living room.

The Origins

When it first started, the BBS was running on state of the art hardware - a 1200 baud modem, using FoReM software, running on an Atari ST with a 20 Mb hard disk, and 2Mb (I think) of memory.

Initially I was not sure if there was enough interest to sustain a purely astronomical bulletin board system, (BBS), so I tried to pick a name that would cover Science Fiction, as well as Astronomy.

But the serious Astro side kicked in very rapidly, as I started finding lots of good material. It was also helped considerably when Starbase 1 attracted the attention of some members of the BAA and Junior Astronomy Society, (later to become the Society for Popular Astronomy). They had been looking at the possibility of setting up just such a system, and decided to support SB1, (and two, when it arrived), rather than start up a new, competing system. Robin Scagell and Don Miles were particularly helpful, in providing timely information, and publicity.

I had a phone bill you would not believe, as I spent much time collecting files from NASA Spacenet. And with no Internet access that meant direct dial at 1200 baud.

The system grew steadily, and it became clear I needed to move to a new setup to provide the features I wanted - such as access to Fidonet, (rather like a direct dial equivalent to USENET), and more than one phone line connected to the system.

By now, although the World Wide Web had not yet appeared, I was also making heavy use of Internet e-mail via the Cix conferencing system, and something called the "Tenner a month club" was appearing. This later grew into Demon Internet...

The new system ran Remote Access BBS software, and I went for a subscriber option, to help cover the high cost of running. The idea was that only subscribers would get access to the second line, and this would also let me provide some more expensive features - such as I.A.U. Circulars. I also knocked up some BASIC programs which would let me collect USENET newsgroups from Cix, and pump them into the BBS! While this was read only, there was enough of interest in the announcement newsgroups to make this very useful - particularly at a time when the Internet was almost unknown, even to many computer techies.

A friend, Rob Robinson, helped by knocking up a couple of very useful bits of software, notably one to convert NASA internal image formats to .GIF files. Clive Strudwick, who was the main man for hardware had also found me a very early CD Rom drive - I think it was about one eighth speed. But who cares when it gave you access to hundreds of megabytes of NASA CD Roms, at 6 dollars a pop?

By now there was a real community feeling to the board, and it was a real pleasure to run it. Users included professional journalists, broadcasters, and some very knowledgeable amateurs.  Involvement with the Society for Popular Astronomy was growing too. Stuff was popping up all the time from users, and it felt very much like a joint effort.

It was at about this time that myself and Rob managed to pull off what I still feel was the BBS greatest achievement - the Digital Star Party.

The idea was simple in theory - we were not very impressed by the astronomical gatherings we had seen, and decided to have a go and see if we could do better. The key thing was to get the involvement of the University College Astronomy department. This would mean we could use their lecture theatre for talks, and also offer the option of a tour around their observatory in Mill Hill in the morning. Also I was begging and borrowing every PC I could lay my hands on, and loading it up with shareware and free astronomy programs for people to try. I was also to give a demo of  this new fangled Internet thing, (still no www!), showing people how you could get access to weather satellite images and this sort of thing.

But the big plan was to connect the big telescope at Mill Hill, with its new fangled CCD camera up to a modem, and link through to a PC in the lecture theatre, so we could take and display images on request from the audience.

After talking to Dr Guest and Prof McNally, we persuaded them that we could do it. Rob had by far the nastiest part - sorting out all the admin side, and bureaucracy. It was an insane rush - I don't think we would have done it if we knew what we were letting ourselves  in for when we started.

Thanks were also due to Motorola, for providing two industrial strength modems to run the link over.

But on the day, though it was completely frantic for me and Rob, everything worked smoothly, though bad weather prevented us from actually doing the telescope link. We got a very good write up in Astronomy Now magazine, and Prof McNally was kind enough to write us a long letter congratulating us on a job well done.

This was also the first occasion I tried selling disks with astronomy shareware on, to help finance things. As it happened, this was essential to the whole Digital Star Party. And a couple of weeks later we sold many of the ones left over while exhibiting at Astronomy Now's Astrofest show in Kensington.

By now there seemed to be Starbase's springing up all over the place. Starbase 2 had popped up fairly rapidly on the South Coast, and then we discovered a totally independent Starbase 3 astronomy BBS running from Fresno California. I can;t remember why John started at 3, but it sure was convenient! Pete Williamson then went for the longest running (other) Starbase, launching Starbase 4 in Shropshire, with it's own distinctive mix of Astronomy and UFO information. Starbase 5 came along after that, another smaller Fidonet astro board, with it's own distinctive style.

At it's peak, I think Starbase one had something like 1300 registered members, and both phone lines were busy most of the time.

The only real pain was the regular fight with modem settings - every time I upgraded there was a new fight to be sure that everyone could still connect OK, regardless of what hardware they were using.

By next year's Astrofest, myself and Rob were ready for our next new venture - publishing an Astronomy CD Rom collection, again to help finance the BBS. (Subscriptions helped cover phone costs, but never came close to covering new hardware).

After extensive fighting with backup units, and a completely sleepless night getting the raw info sorted, the first collection was published - and only delivered just as the show was opening. Scary! Again myself and Rob had put our own money on the line to get this out. Mastering costs were high, but unit costs low, so we were completely dependant on selling a decent number of copies. Various other friends helped out on the stands, and again I blagged as many computers as possible to show what was available.

After the scary start it was a great success, and seemed to me like we were the busiest stand at the show - though I'll admit to being biased!

The decline of the system was slow, and driven by several factors.

The cost of running the system continued to rise - keeping up with the fastest modems, ever increasing hard drive space needed, and a CD Jukebox, (that I never did get working reliably). It fast became dependant on the sales of shareware CD Roms at Astrofest, and also by mail order.

The amount of time required to keep it up to date was downright scary. Every night I would connect to Cix to collect the IAU circulars I had licensed. I was also collecting and processing several of the higher quality space and astronomy newsgroups - again these had to be collected and manually have a Mickey mouse BASIC program slice them up, and load them in, Another simple program, again manually run, would produce artificial satellite predictions. There was maintaining the user details, and responding to messages. Searching for, and downloading new material for download.

I reckon I was spending 45 minutes minimum every evening on it. And at least one afternoon a weekend on top.

It was OK though - seriously rewarding.

The biggest problem though was the rise of the Internet.

People wanted local call access - fine if you are in London, but no good elsewhere. The early adopters wanted access via the net directly. The only way I could see of doing that was to run a leased line into my flat, at a cost of thousands a year. I had gigabytes of downloads - how much would it cost to store that lot online? And maintain it remotely?

Also, people were, quite rightly, asking for a much friendlier interface. If you have used a nice graphic browser, you don't want to go back to a command line interface.

What on Earth could I do?

In the end, the best I could come up with was to switch to Wildcat software.

On paper, this looked pretty much ideal.

It was a normal BBS system, but you could use a (free) piece of client software, which made it look VERY like the World Wide Web. but with support for BBS conferencing. If you chose not too, you could stick to the command line. It supported some neat gateway type features - I could offer Internet email, and read / write access to newsgroups. (I restricted this to subscribers, which now gave a real incentive, rather than relying on people goodwill).

It was MUCH more demanding on hardware though, as it ran under Windows, whereas the old software ran well under Qemm / Desqview.

So, deep breath, empty the BBS account, add some more, and buy a big new PC, and the software.

This turned out to be a really unfortunate move. I still can't see anything else I could have done, but the whole thing was catastrophically unstable. Bugs, 'features' that never worked, features that worked sometimes, system crashes and lockups. The web front end was a nightmare, and had a weird way of referring to pages in references, which meant you could not use normal software. It would do one thing when testing online, and ALWAYS something completely different online. Modem management got horrible, and I lost some users, because they could no longer connect.

Some liked it, some didn't. People seemed reluctant to get to know a new program to use the system, and did not want the old command line interface.

And people who had heard of the Internet, and got their own access started moving away.

The user base started dropping.

On the plus side, it was about this time I got a column in Astronomy Now magazine. Finding neat websites for astronomers, and reviewing them. Fun! I was also on the committee of the Society for Popular Astronomy, though I was not very reliable in turning up to the meetings! (I never did get on with the BAA, who for the most part stuck me as suffering a serious lack of humour - come on guys, this stuff is FUN!)

I tore my hair out, as I fought "up"grades, and bug "fixes" which generally meant major rebuilds or other hassles. On the Wildcat "support" conferences people were threatening class action law suits... The system had to come down for me to pack the message bases down.

I still feel the BBS offered many things that you still cannot get on the net. The sense of community, and the great discussions. A signal to noise level in the conferences that beat anything I have seen elsewhere. EVERYTHING IN ONE PLACE! How hard is it to find a piece of astro software, when each little one has its own page, and you have several billions of pages to search?

My interests outside of the BBS and astronomy grew, and I started feeling burned out with so many years of the same thing.

Anyway, I quietly stopped accepting subscriptions, determined that anyone who had paid would get the full year of full service.

Not long after that the monitor on the BBS broke, and I could not justify replacing it.

Due to the habit of crashing, I rebooted the BBS PC  periodically, and typed in commands blind to pack the messages.

I'm not sure when I gave up completely, but finally, after noticing that I had not seen the modem lights on for more than a couple of minutes in ages, I hit the off switch, and Starbase One was no more.

The Rise

The Decline

The Problems

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