As a kid I grew up on the Internet, but back then we called it a BBS. And there were a lot of separate ones instead of a single digital space. It was a rich, occasionally connected world built out of artistic expression within the limitations of the medium, which was primarily text based. The old hardware that these systems were run on still exists in small quantities, if you search diligently you can find working Commodore 64s and Apple IIes.

Interested net historians can explore the preserved data from this world on Textfiles.com. I recommend my favorite section, the art scene, which can be reached at artscene.textfiles.com. You can still digitally telnet into the few remaining online systems from a modern computer, but a long-time dream project of mine has been trying to hack together a way to get my old system back online for the full nostalgia experience.

An ESP8266 soldered onto a board and RS-232 serial connector

Photo by Paul Rickards.

Luckily for me, if you procrastinate on a really cool project long enough, the Internet provides. There is a vibrant retro hacking community online, and with the advent of cheap small form boards, it’s becoming easier and easier to build physical bridges for modern methods to old systems. Paul Rickards at the amazingly named biosrhythm has put together a kit using the ESP8266 to build your own RS-232 serial Hayes Modem for $30, or get it fully assembled at $45 for those of us who are already board hoarding.

The verified compatible terminal list is pretty extensive, and there is a good chance you can get it working on unlisted machines if they used RS-232 serial connectors to the modem. If you have the right cable, it even supports Commodore PET, which means my dreams of a living room retrofuture console where I can force guests to very slowly look at art scrolling on a screen can finally come true.

four images in a grid of various views of the ESP8266 soldered onto a board connected to an RS-232 serial port.

Photo by Paul Rickards.

Paul is making them in small batches, so if the page is sold out, keep checking back and follow him @paulrickards on Twitter where he announces new orders. Once you get your terminal up and running, check out the telnet BBS Guide to find active BBSes or Vintage BBS to find systems by location.