Going Online in the Early 90s, Part 2
Last time I talked about first going online using Delphi and GEnie. The story continues…
Remote to School Unix Terminals using VT-52
I was still in university at this time, slowly working towards a Computer Science degree I would never quite reach. I lived off-campus and didn’t have a car, so sometimes getting to the computer lab to do assignments on the Unix workstations was a pain. I was a little over a mile away so walking could take 30 minutes (or more in the winter) and waiting for a shuttle bus might take even longer.
But of course, I could connect to the Unix workstations for free using VT-52 terminal emulator software with my Atari ST. Since the Unix equipment in the lab was also set up as terminal emulators this ended up not being all that different of an experience, just slightly slower. I could connect, log in to my account, see my files, write, compile and test code, and submit things to professors.
It all worked great. Except for the sharing of the phone line thing. Unlike most programmers I don’t like to do heavy thinking in the evening, so I would work during the day. It was always a battle with roommates about this.
The apartment we were in had always been owner-occupied. The landlord had the first floor and four of us shared the 2nd and 3rd floors. I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point our landlord got a girlfriend and moved in with her. However he never rented out the first floor. I guess he kept it just in case things didn’t work out. He also kept his phone line.
Also during this time I worked part-time at Radio Shack. I was the “computer guy” as you might expect. And I knew enough about general electronics to be dangerous.
So I came up with a scheme. I would connect my landlord’s phone line to the line 2 of our phone line. For those of you that have never used landlines, here’s some background: Standard phone lines consist of four wires, two for line 1 and two for line 2. Most of the time, only the first two were hooked up because few people had multiple phone lines since it would also be twice the cost.
So essentially I just had to get down to the basement, isolate the wires for the phone lines and splice them so I could take wires 1 and 2 from the first floor line and attach them to wires 3 and 4 of the upper floor phone lines. And with an adapter to ensure I used line 2 with my modem I could have unlimited use of our landlord’s phone for getting online!
So one evening one of my roommates stood guard in case the landlord happened to come home and I snuck down to the basement to do the “hack”. It didn’t take long and worked like a charm.
To be clear, as unethical as this was, I never used it to make out-of-area phone calls or do anything that would have caused him to be charged any money. I just used to it call local numbers for going online.
One day I had a panic when I was connected to the school computer and got garbage on the screen! That mean that someone had picked up the phone. It turned out my landlord had stopped at his place to get his mail and tried to use the phone while he was there! The next thing I know I hear a knocking on our door and the landlord is asking to use our phone because his was “on the fritz”.
I said “sure" and quickly disconnected my connection to school. I was always nervous using the line after that, but not too long afterwards I ended up moving out. I don’t believe I ever disconnected my hack. I wonder if anyone ever noticed it?
Oracle for Stalker
As I was going online plenty and starting to use up all my 20 hours on Delphi, I needed to come up with a solution. Recently I had purchased software called STalker, a telecommunications program. There were several of these types of programs available, which you would use to connect to BBS or online services such as Delphi (Genie had their own program, Aladdin, that they preferred you use).
The cool thing about STalker is that it had its own built-in programming language, called BackTalk. I studied its docs and determined that I could use it to create a power script that would automatically log on to Delphi at a certain time, download forum posts and emails to files to read offline, and download specified files.
This meant you could have my script connect in the middle of the night to grab all this stuff and when you got up in the morning it would all be available on your computer. You would not have any phone line contention, and if had to use a long-distance number (which would be even more expensive), doing it overnight was usually cheaper.
Plus this also saved my actual online time since I was no longer wasting my online time reading forum posts or email. You could even create replies offline and they would be sent the next time you ran the script.
I wrote this program in the summer of 1993 and released it in the Fall. Since people had actually been sending me money for JumpSTART even though it was freware, I decided to release this script as shareware. I named it Oracle for Delphi, a silly pun. I had no knowledge of the Oracle database system at that point, not that it mattered.
I posted Oracle for download on Delphi as a $15 shareware program. Technically I think it might have been demoware as I believe the downloadable version had some limitations. Sending me a check (yes, a check) for $15 would get you the unlocked version, registered in your name, sent back to you on a floppy.
I was hoping that Oracle might make enough money to pay a month’s rent or so, but it ended up selling far more than that. I don’t have exact numbers, but I definitely made several hundred dollars. Considering that this only worked if you already had and were using the STalker terminal program, I was pleased with these sales.
Since the Delphi version did so well, I also made a version that worked with GEnie, the other online service I used regularly. GEnie already had their own free program, Aladdin, that you could use to connect, but it didn’t do the offline stuff that Oracle could, so it also proved to be pretty popular.
I also think that Oracle helped me get my first professional programmer job. Since BackTalk looked very similar to C, I of course brought a printout of it to my interviews to share as examples of my work. I remember the interview said I cleaned up the code to make it look nice for the interview. I was appalled because I had done no such thing — it was my actual code. And of course being me, I still have that 25-page printout. Here’s a sample:
The compiled Oracle BackTalk script is available as one of the many Goto 10 paid subscription perks. Unfortunately I don’t have a digital copy of the source, so I'll need to either type in or OCR the printout I have.