|The Cellar: A comprehensive history
The scene: before 1990. A whole set of enjoyable messaging BBSes ("Bulletin Board Systems") abound in the Philly area, the precursor to the Internet. The granddaddy of them all is KAOS. It was started by Scott, then known as Maxwell Smart, and then sold to one John Bradley, generally only known as Captain Infinity. We all had handles back then; I was Rev. Wonder Toad...
There are a handful of folks here who were present back then. I won't name them because they know who they are, and if I miss one I will regret it for the rest of my days.
These systems were pretty enjoyable, but they had limitations. They were all single-line systems... one phone line into one modem into one computer. If someone else was "dialed in" to a system, you'd get a busy signal when you tried to reach it!
KAOS was unique in that at some point Cap'n Infinity had left the system running (in his grandmother's house?) and moved away. Often the system would fall into software or hardware disrepair. Sometimes it would be down for days, but everyone continued to call it.
1990: The beginning
Summer 1990... Scott and I discover some common interests and become friends. We are united in our thought that there should be a more modern KAOS with all the fixin's: multiple phone lines, sysops who actually fix things and advertise the system's presence, et cetera. We decide to make a project of it. He buys a load of hardware with some money that he'd made by doing consulting work. We set the system up in Scott's cellar. He has gotten an illicit copy of SCO Xenix from a friend who works in SCO tech support, and somehow we load the machine and get it running.
We start coding, thinking that we'll write our own BBS. (For programmers, this was an all-too-common thought back then -- and generally a futile one.) Eventually I find the Waffle BBS software through Usenet, and the list of features include everything we would have written into our own system. We buy a copy and find out that it's excellent -- almost exactly what we would have written. It appears to have lineage common to our own; its interface is similar to WWIV, a messaging-oriented, DOS-based BBS package. Oddly enough, there are even some hints of GBBS, the Apple II BBS system that KAOS was built upon. And it'll run under Xenix - which is, roughly speaking, the major Unix variant that ran on x86-based systems (i.e., PCs!). Nowadays, if you want to run Unix on a PC, you run Linux (for the most part), but back in the day Linux hadn't even been written yet.
Early September. We're thinking about what we should call the system. Naming a system is harder than it seems. I jot down a few ideas, but nothing seems right. After a few days I stumble onto "The Cellar". I think it's perfect; it gives the system a ring of class. (Before that, we were stumbling around, using a working title like "Max and Toad's Place or some such.) "The Cellar" even represents its physical location. We go with it.
September 24, 1990. In a mad night of effort, we load the system, configure it, and start customizing it. In only a few hours, it's ready to go. We're both astounded at how easy it is to get everything ready. I start writing help frames and moving my collection of text files in. The first caller is Saint Craig, who runs another area system similar to KAOS called IAI (an acronym for the Institute of Artificial Insanity).
The original system started with 8 "boards"; areas like "Home Base" and "Computing and Technology" were there from the beginning. Modifications such as the message marking system, the kill file, etc. are yet to arrive.
We announce the Cellar on all the local haunts. At this point it has two lines, and is limited to two lines by a combination of Xenix and PC hardware. (But that's 100% more lines than all the other similar BBSes!)
After two weeks, we've had about 50 callers. The system's popularity starts to grow, but is still overshadowed by the other area systems.
Over the next few months I am obsessed with the idea of getting the system a Usenet feed. At first we add email and a few smaller newsgroups through UUNET, the Internet's first public access provider; then, in January, we get a "full feed" through some contacts I have at Unisys. We thus become the first system in Philly to offer public access to Internet services.
We get on a few lists and people start to call us looking specifically for Usenet. We convert the system to SCO Unix, locate a board to allow us to expand the number of lines we can have, and add a third line dedicated to the Usenet feed and email.
To try to drum up more interest, I start offering "100-series" boards. The intention is for users to host their own areas, covering their own special interests. The idea works well on those boards where the "moderator" remains interested -- not so well when the moderator doesn't post very often.
The early 90s
By the end of 1991 we are getting 100 new callers every month. The Cellar has become the area's premier messaging BBS. There are regular get-togethers at Reading Terminal Market, attended by large numbers of users.
However, by now the system shares the KAOS legacy of not having someone to watch over the hardware. Scott has moved in with his girlfriend, leaving the system where it started, at his parents' house. We experience a number of problems with that arrangement. Once in a while the system becme unavailable and needs to be rebooted in such a way that we can't get it done remotely.
It becomes obvious that the system needs to move to Horsham, where Scott is. My own apartment situation seems less stable than theirs, and Scott is the owner of the hardware. We move the system, adding two more lines in the process. At this point the system has five lines and is in excellent shape.
Late '91, early '92, the expansion of Usenet starts to really fly. A full feed is getting harder to maintain. We replace the original 660 MB ESDI hard drive with a 1 Gig SCSI drive. We upgrade the original 386/33 to a 486/33. Scott is still funding the hardware, although the operating costs and feed costs are almost completely covered by subscriber fees. Almost.
Around about now the system is popular enough that a call for inline hockey players get enough people interested to form the nucleus of a team. Pushed along by darling, and coached by turtle, the Blades have regular practice sessions in Roxborough and Lower Merion. Approximately 10 different Cellarites eventually get involved in some way or another.
We have a GTG at a Phillies game: a group outing. "The Cellar BBS" is displayed on the scoreboard when they run down the names of the groups there that day.
It's mid 1992, and I see less and less of Scott even though we now work five minutes from each other and live 20 minutes from each other. There are fewer and fewer late night programming sessions. It turns out that Scott is having serious lifestyle difficulties. He is eventually diagnosed with "gender dysphoria", but in general he is facing all sorts of gender confusion and is uncertain whether he is psychologically male or female. He becomes much less certain of his future. Eventually he leaves his girlfriend, and by 1993 the system moves to Trooper, in with Cellar user susanc, who is a friend of Scott's. Once again the system is orphaned, although Susan is extremely considerate, enjoys using the system, and doesn't mind being its keeper.
In between all this, I've gotten married, and not long thereafter my wife and I buy a house. One of the criteria I specify in our house hunting is that the house should be within the Philly metropolitan calling region -- I'm thinking about all the calls I'll make in that area, but also hoping that the system will move in with me. We find a place that does seem to be within the region, but I'm tricked! The house is in a zone where you can get metro plan calling to call OUT, but it is not strictly within the zone. So it's a toll call for metro callers caling IN to the house!
Undaunted, in May 1993 I make a deal with Scott to buy the system from him. Scott has decided to move away to better approach his "problem". We agree on a price (just short of putting me in the poor house), and set up a system of payments. I move the system into my house, and set up a call forwarding system to allow people to use the numbers at Susan's house to reach the system sans toll. At the same time, the system goes to 7 lines -- 6 incoming, and one dedicated to the Usenet news feed.
The Cellar is written up in six inches of column space in the Welcomat, a Philly independent weekly. The article suggests that the system is hard for novices to use, perhaps intentionally so; but nonetheless it makes a great electronic tavern.
In early 1994 I add a second SCSI hard drive to try to manage the Usenet news. The system is often quite slow as it tries to keep the news flowing.
In August 1994 I hold the Cellar BBQ at my house. About 30 people attend. A good time is had by all. Also in attendance is one non-user: Dinty W. Moore, an author I've invited because he's writing a book on Internet culture. He interviews everyone and eventually makes the GTG into chapter 6 of his book, "The Emperor's Virtual Clothes: the Naked Truth about Internet Culture", which is published September 1995.
Mid 90s: the Internet finally catches up
By then, the Internet has gone stark raving mad. It reaches the point where it is no longer feasible to maintain a full Usenet feed. I fight to make it work. I set up a feed through an early local ISP called Net Access, because it seems like I'll have more say in how the feed will work, and perhaps gain the ability to segment out the groups that no-one reads. But by now people are interested in full Internet access, not just net news and net mail access, and over time there are fewer and fewer subscribers. Eventually I read the writing on the wall. Keeping the full feed is impossible, and people don't want to use the character-based interface for the net anyway. Spreading the continuing high costs over a smaller number of subscribers will put me in the poor house. In April 1995 I announce that the system will no longer be available for subscriptions. It'll continue on as a local BBS indefinitely.
I worry that the system will see less interest without the net. And it does see a drop off in modem and line usage, but the best users stick around and continue to use the system as it's best used: locally.
In between the net happenings, in March-April 1995 I have a few conversations with Avi Freedman about possibly moving the Cellar to Net Access. (Which is now known as Netaxs.) The Cellar and Netaxs share some common ground as early net systems. When starting Netaxs, Avi attended a Cellar get-together at Joy Tsin Lau to try to talk up his new system. (For two years thereafter, all of Netaxs' get-togethers were at Joy Tsin Lau.) Many of NA's first callers come from the Cellar, or were personally referred by me. After some discussion, however, it becomes apparent that there are too many impasses, and that any "merger" will not be possible.
Soon thereafter I have conversations with Peter Sardella at Fishnet. He remembers the Cellar as the first place he went looking for a public Internet connection. By late 1995 we start discussing what it would take to move the Cellar to Fishnet or to network the Cellar through Fishnet. It never happens.
Mid '95... Dan Reed and Suzy Freeman get married, and credit the Cellar to bringing them together. The program for their wedding includes the congratulatory remarks that Cellar users made when the two of them announced their engagement.
At some point in late '95 I get disgusted with the fact that once in a while someone is afraid to debate me or speak openly with me because I'm the owner and sysop. So, in a staged move, I "sell" the system to the mythical J. R. "Bob" Dobbs, disguising at least for new users the fact that I'm really the owner. Several people think I've actually sold the system -- which is fine...
Transitioning to the net: will it survive?
On June 1, 1998, The Cellar finally gives up as a local-only BBS and goes Internet - as a "telnettable BBS". This turns out to be its weakest incarnation because telnet is a less popular protocol.
At this point, approximately 4500 Cellar accounts have been opened since its inception. After some time, though, it becomes clear that telnet is too hard or too forgettable for the general userbase. Some don't have or can't find their telnet access. The system lives on during this time, though.
The forum system is a little buggy, but the Cellar lives on during this period... but with a still-dwindling number of visitors. The system just doesn't encourage people to post. Our plans to further develop the software are thwarted by real life issues. The Cellar almost dies during this period.
In January 2001, the Cellar is reincarnated (Cellar mk V!) using the vBulletin messaging system. This is the incarnation in which it lives today. Those previous users that could be located are located, and then the word is spread. During the first year, interest slowly builds. By the end of the first year, the number of posts per day increases steadily. Where once there had been 75 posts per week, there are now 350.
During this period, the world in general is switching from Usenet as its popular place-to-go for messaging and forums, moving to web-based forums. Because most people still access the net through slow dialup connections, web-based forums start their life as clunky interfaces, not much better than the old character-based interfaces of the past.
I look at the various image haunts I have on the net and realize I could post one interesting image per day and call it "image of the day". This idea seems like a winner so I continue to post them, and over time it starts having a life of its own. I develop the Image of the Day "blog view" to let people browse the images in a way that gently encourages them to become Cellarites.
In October 2001, one of the Images of the Day is featured on fark.com and the resulting flood of viewers results in the Cellar's most popular days ever.
Over the next two years the number of posts per day doubles, and then doubles again as the place becomes more popular.
"Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make."