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.
When it first started, the BBS was running on state of the art hardware -
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 -
By now, although the World Wide Web had not yet appeared, I was also making heavy
use of Internet e-
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
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 -
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 idea was simple in theory -
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 -
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 -
By next year's Astrofest, myself and Rob were ready for our next new venture -
After extensive fighting with backup units, and a completely sleepless night getting
the raw info sorted, the first collection was published -
After the scary start it was a great success, and seemed to me like we were the busiest
stand at the show -
The decline of the system was slow, and driven by several factors.
The cost of running the system continued to rise -
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 -
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 -
The biggest problem though was the rise of the Internet.
People wanted local call access -
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 -
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 -
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.