Introduction: Calling Bulletin Board Systems (BBS)

It's 1985.  The movie Back to the Future is still in the theaters and for the life of you, you can't fathom why Coca Cola would dare to change their formula.  It's time to fire up a computer and see if there is an electronic mail from friends and catch up on local rumors, but it isn't a Windows machine.  Windows 1.0 was just released recently.  Oh, and the Internet..  well.. is the only registered .com domain, and there isn't too much there if you aren't an educator.

Some of you just took a small trip down memory lane..  

This was the dawn of "pre-Internet" electronic communication.
Want to take a trip a bit further?  Yes, you can go home again.

This Instructable will teach you about Bulletin Board Systems, (BBSs) and the role they had before the Internet.  I'll also teach you how to build your own microcontroller based "mini computer" to dial BBS systems over the Internet.

Gone you said?  

No, there are hundreds of them all over the world which you can connect to without tying up a phone or running up a long distance bill.

Put on your Parachute Pants and your Members Only Jacket, we're going back in time.

Required Hardware:
  • Propeller board with VGA/Keyboard Output. (I'm using a Pocket Mini Computer)
  • A PS/2 Keybaord
  • A VGA Monitor
The Pocket Mini Computer kit has everything required to do this project and more, but there are schematics on the next page for those who want to "roll their own" Propeller microcontroller mini computer.   

More details about the Pocket Mini Computer can be found in this Instructable:

Step 1: The Pocket Mini Computer

The Pocket Mini Computer is microcontroller based microcomputer.  

The Pocket Mini Computer is programmed in "COLOR" BASIC. COLOR BASIC is similar to the BASIC found on common microcomputers of the 80's and early 90's.  It is also capable of running non-basic binary files and being programmed in C and Spin.  

PMC allows you to explore micro computing with a machine which:
  • Can be successfully assembled in an evening.
  • Can be programmed in BASIC. (and other languages)
  • Can play games and run programs.
  • Most importantly: Can be understood.
The Pocket Mini Computer was originally sold by Gadget Gangster.  When the high demand for the product created shortages and backorders, the product was redesigned to be sold by Propellerpowered, the original designer of the product.  You can obtain this kit from, or build you own using this schematic.   You'll need to build the VGA, keyboard, and SD circuits on your Propeller board to fully use this Instructable.

We'll be using the following I/O pins for connected devices:
  • P0 - P3     SD or microSD connection
  • P26, P26  PS/2 Keyboard Connection
  • P16-P23  VGA connection

Step 2: Installing BASIC

If you using the Pocket Mini Computer Kit, the BASIC will come pre-installed and should boot up immediately after assembly.

If you are building your own, you'll need to download the BASIC firmware and related files from:
  1. Download basic.bin and basedit.bin and copy them to the microSD card on your configuration.
  2. Download and extract it to an empty folder.
  3. Download Propeller Tool and install it to your computer
  4. Open BASIC.spin and use F11 to send it to your Propeller using Propeller Tool.
While downloading, grab a copy of Color Basic Language Reference.PDF, there's a lot more this project will do.

If at some point you get stuck drop into the Pocket Mini Computer forums and ask questions!  

We'll help!


In the 80's, you could find many magazines that had BASIC listings you had to type in to make the program work.  This Instructable is no different!   (At least for the this first example.  We'll let you cheat later!)

Once you've got your Pocket Mini Computer configured and running with COLOR BASIC, it's time to type in a terminal program!  Think of the Terminal Program as the "web browser" for Bulletin Board Systems.  

Brush back your Mullet, and type the following program into COLOR BASIC:

5 REDEFINE 96,255,255,255,255,255,255,255,255
6 GOSUB 500
10 SERIAL 31,30,0,300
20 a=INKEY
21 IF a=200 THEN GOSUB 100
30 IF a > 12 AND a < 128 THEN TX a
50 b=RX
60 IF b>12 AND b<126 THEN GOSUB 200
70 GOTO 20
100 REM ** backspace routine **
105 LET a=8
130 DISPLAY 32
140 DISPLAY 32
170 DISPLAY 96
200 REM ** Display data with cursor **
220 DISPLAY 32
250 DISPLAY 96
500 REM ** display opening screen **
510 COLOR 63,0
560 PRINT "----------------------------------------------"
570 PRINT " "
575 COLOR 46,0
580 PRINT "terminal active:"

Got the entire program typed in?   Type SAVE "TERM.BAS" and save it to your microSD card on the Pocket Mini Computer.

Step 4: Connecting to Internet Based BBS Systems.

In the day, microcomputers would connect to Bulletin Board Systems using dial-up modems.   Thankfully, we don't have to do that anymore!

We'll be using a little "linking" program running on the PC to make the connection to the Pocket Mini Computer.  This program is called PropLink.  (It is based on a program created by Leif Bloomquist, called BBS Server.)  Dowload the PropLink archive and extract it to an empty folder.

With exception to the "Com" port settings, it is already perfectly configured for our purposes.  Adjust the Com port to match your programming connection to the PC.   This can be discovered using the Propeller Tool (mentioned earlier) with the F7 command.

When you start PropLink, the Pocket Mini Computer will reset itself, so always start it first, then load your BASIC terminal program.

Here's how it works:  
  • The Pocket Mini Computer is running a simple terminal program.
  • The Pocket Mini Computer is connected your PC using a USB cable.
  • The PC is connected to the Internet.
  • PropLink handles the communication between the two.

(Tip: You can also use F1 in BASIC (press it twice) to put the terminal program into the startup so that it launches automatically whenever the Pocket Mini Computer reboots.  Use the NEW command to remove it from the startup.)

Step 5: BBS Etiquette and Expectations

Unlike static webpages which are usually located on servers located in data centers, BBS systems are much more personal.  They are run by hobbyists, usually on a spare computer in their homes.   While logged into the BBS, you are a guest in their home.   Always behave as such.

Here's some things you can expect while using a BBS system.
  • A time limit:  Some BBS's are limited to 1-5 users at a time.
  • A signup process.  The System Operator (Sysop) will know who you are.
  • A message center.  These are public messages, not unlike web based forums.
  • Electronic Mail.  Just like Email between BBS users, (just before email)
  • Sysop Chat.  The System Operator can open a chat window to talk directly to you.
  • Feedback.  Leave the Sysop an encouraging note and thank them. 
  • Online Games.  If you've never played LORD or Tradewars, then you missed out!!

Step 6: Making the Connection

So you've got your Pocket Mini Computer running, a copy of PropLink running on the PC, and your typed in terminal program.

Time to make it work!

(On the Pocket Mini Computer)

Type ATH and hit ENTER

If everything is working correctly, the terminal should respond with an OK message.   You are ready to make your first connection!


(ATH and ATDT are "Attention Hang Up" and "Dial Tone" used by Hayes modems.)

After a moment of two you should see scrolling text asking you if you want ASCII/PETSCII (select ASCII).   You are connected!

You are actually connected to a Commodore 64 microcomputer running in Canada by Leif Bloomquist.   This is the same computer and BBS software which you would have encountered back in the 80s.   Commodore computers used a special form of ASCII called "PETSCII" which supported color text and graphics.   A minimal PETSCII terminal program is available for your Pocket Mini Computer, on the support forums.   If you type it in it's a little longer, but worth it!   (BTW, you can cheat and save any BASIC program as a text file and copy it to your microSD card.)

Believe it or not, there are many Commodore 64 BBS systems still running on the Internet.
Check out this site:

Step 7: Catching the BBS Bug.

You've made contact with a remote BBS using a terminal program you typed in from BASIC at 300 baud.

Adjust your legwarmers, because there's more, much more.

Time to replace your BASIC terminal program with a serious ANSI terminal.  It's a binary file that will run on your Pocket Mini Computer.
  • Download ansiterm.bin from the Propellerpowered Library.  Copy it to your microSD card.
  • Click on Advanced in PropLink and raise the speed to 115200.
  • From BASIC, type BRUN "ansiterm.bin" and press ENTER.
AnsiTerm is a powerful ANSI compatible terminal program, perfect for dialing into many BBS systems at high speed.

Ready for some really BIG BBS systems?   Check out the list at:

There are hundreds of BBS systems all over the globe you can connect to using your Pocket Mini Computer!   The best part is that even though you are connected to your PC, it doesn't tie up the computer.  Let's the spouse play Solitaire and Farmsville while you sink you teeth into some Tradewars 2002 action.  (Be warned, these games are addicting!)