VOGONS


First post, by QBiN

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It just struck me while I was going through some parts... that we, generally as a retro community, seem to ignore one category of retro hardware. Is it simply because, in and of itself, this gear provides current day utility approaching zero? I'm talking about the modem, of course. Interestingly, the NIC of years past and the modem have undergone a complete role reversal over the decades.

If you had a NIC during the 80's, 90's, and even early 2000's, you were in the minority. Unless you worked at a company that was an early adopter of networking or a university that was an early adopter, you may have only had a NIC to play some of the earliest LAN games over IPX. Far more people had modems, and they were indispensable for getting "online", checking email from FidoNET, getting to your "shell" account, or downloading drivers for your hardware from the manufacturer's BBS. There was also Prodigy, Compuserv, and AOL (among a slew of others) dedicated services that were around even before SLIP/PPP and dial-up ISP's became popular. The BBS's of that era were really the fore-runner to internet forums like this one.

As modems got faster in the 286/386/486 era... There was one upgrade that we don't usually talk about here, but most from that time will remember: the 16550 UART chip. Most early PC's of this era came with the National Semiconductor 8250 UART chip. This is the chip that took parallel data (bytes) that your software generated and converted it to a RS-232 serial stream and provided appropriate control lines to send this data to a remote computer via modem or null-modem cable. The 8250 only allowed effective baud rates of up to 9600. Later, some of these early x86 PC's started to come with the 16450 UART. This later chip allowed higher speeds, but didn't have large enough buffers to ensure you didn't lose data if your PC was momentarily busy when the serial port received data and couldn't service the serial interrupt in time. This isn't meant to be a technical deep-dive into UART's. So long story, short... When compression and speeds faster than 9600 started showing up, everyone scrambled to ensure they had a 16550A UART. This was the chip that allowed COM port speeds up to 115,200 and beyond with adequate buffers to help slower PC's keep up. It was a game-changer.

Folks like you and me now started looking at ensuring our Multi-IO cards were 16550-spec, or checking to see if the UART's on our built in serial ports were socketed. Many older PC/XT's/AT's could be upgraded just by swapping out the 40pin UART DIP chip. By the time Multi-IO was being integrated into motherboards, 16550A (or compatible) UART's were a de-facto standard. All Multi-IO cards had a single integrated chip with all the multi-io functions and 16550's built-in. All internal modem cards came with them.

Today, even in our retro rigs, our serial ports see little use past a serial mouse in most cases (if that). The NIC's we may have barely used back then are now prized as getting these older machines on the LAN with MS Lan Manager, MS DOS Lan Clients, or (especially) WFW 3.11 are the more convenient method to move data around with SMF/CIFS windows file shares. Windows 9x and later makes this trivial.

I dare say the modem, that was once of immeasurable importance, is now the least regarded and valued of retro gear out there. Well... I still have many of my old ones. I used to run a multi-line BBS in Southern California... so perhaps I have too many still. I just can't bring myself to get rid of them.

Do any of you guys have good modem stories/memories?

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Reply 1 of 20, by jmannik

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I do remember having a 8250 based controller in my first PC, a 286-16 (a family computer really) which I replaced the chip with a 16550 chip as soon as I realised that null modem file copies took less time with the faster chip. It has been a long time since I have upgraded chips on my computer hardware 😜

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Reply 2 of 20, by nforce4max

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That was well before my time but I would keep the old hoard who knows that stuff might be useful someday given how things are changing for the worse on the internet with all the spying as well new government regulations. I remember a few years back when the internet was shut down in a country during the "Arab Spring" and people had to revert to using dial up.

On a far away planet reading your posts in the year 10,191.

Reply 3 of 20, by swaaye

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I used 2400, 14.4, 33.6 and 56K modems. The first computer I hooked a modem to was a Tandy 1000TX 286 so that was 8250. Then my first 486 had a 16450 port which isn't much better. Eventually I got a card with a 16550 onboard.

My 56K modem was useless because the phone system was still analog at the time or whatever and limited me to ~26.4 kbps. That modem was a USR Sportster with X2 and eventually V.90 firmware.

In college I found a free high-end USR Courier modem and played with it a little. But I was on ethernet at that point so the modem ship had sailed.

BBSs, ZModem, Ymodem, Bimodem, 8-n-1, V.42 bis vs. MNP, Winmodems, etc, etc.....

V.92 with V.44 is pretty neat. Too bad it didn't show up in like 1996.

Reply 4 of 20, by chinny22

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First modem I got a handme down Netcomm 2400 bps. It was around 1995? so already slow but the modem was top quality and I messed around on the 2 or 3 BBS's in the area.
A random pic of it from a quick google search
http://www.cactii.net/~vk2bv/2001-website/fs-252.jpg

When we decided to get the internet we got a US robotics 33.6 clone that looked a lot like courier HST above only beige with blue surround. That served my parents house right up till 6 years ago! Once that died (may just be the fuse as that's gone before) they finally got a satellite connection as dial ups are dying out despite ADSL not available in their small pocket of a small country town.

last trip home I chucked out 2 internal modems I'd collected over the years but I cant bring myself to ditch the Netcomm casue its a part of Aussie history and the 33.6 it outlasted 4 PC's in the end. Really I cant see any use for them, even phone lines are starting to disappear from homes but you never know!

Reply 5 of 20, by Maeslin

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The venerable 16550A and its more modern substitutes (bigger buffers, multiple serial ports on one chip, etc.) are still in heavy use in the embedded and industrial worlds. I use a (literal) boatload of RS-232, RS-422 and RS-485 in my work on ships and on various pieces of submersible research equipment.

Also slowly building a neat little Stratum-0 NTP server out of an old 486 SBC and a RS232 multiport PC/104 card. Finagling with interrupts for 8 serial ports without shared interrupts is... interesting. 😵

Modems can still be used for long-distance point-to-point by using a line voltage injector. That allows making a length of twisted pair visible to the modem as a regular phone line. On some modems it's not even necessary either. 😁

Reply 6 of 20, by meisterister

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I unfortunately grew up in an era of DSL only (which was admittedly very nice back in '04), but I've never bothered to throw away any of the various modems I've accumulated over the years, mostly out of the fact that they seemed pretty cool. I've always wanted to get a phone line simulator so that I can have my own godawful modem networking thing. That would certainly make network transfers to some of my Pentium-era laptops a whole lot easier.

I'm actually kind of surprised that this forum doesn't have a multiplayer hosting thread. It would be cool to see if there's anyone closeish with a modem and a copy of AOE II, for example.

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Reply 7 of 20, by HighTreason

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Always had modems here from 1993 until 2007 (Was 2007, when we moved to 3G until DSL became available). Still use my original e-mail address which is the one I am registered to the forum with - it's an AOL address.

Still used Dial-Up as a fail-over when my DSL goes offline until the ISP broke contract and shut the service off rather than fixing the server that answered (which hadn't worked for a few months).

My first modem was an old Zoltrix (Or was it ELSA?) 14.4K that was outdated when I got it before I moved to a 28K modem for many years.

I still use a modem today though, as it is set to answer the line meaning I can always call home and connect to my PC even if the DSL goes out.

I think the best memory of using modems as the means of connecting to the net is one from when I was about 12 years old and properly discovering the female of the species. Every so often I'd stay up late and wait for everyone else to go to sleep before sneaking onto the computer and going on adult websites - nothing unusual there really. The problem was that sometimes I'd forget to mute the modem and the house would wake up to the sound of Dial-Up internet blasting out of my bedroom as I switched the monitor off and darted back into bed to pretend I had been up to nothing and must have forgotten to turn the computer off. Discovered recently that one of those websites I visited back then still exists!

Last edited by HighTreason on 2015-02-16, 19:31. Edited 3 times in total.

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Reply 8 of 20, by swaaye

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meisterister wrote:

I'm actually kind of surprised that this forum doesn't have a multiplayer hosting thread. It would be cool to see if there's anyone closeish with a modem and a copy of AOE II, for example.

I haven't had a landline since about 2005. 😵

Reply 9 of 20, by tayyare

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My first deathmatch experience was with Doom, using a null modem cable. I also remember playing Retalliator with the same method. It was Doom II when we first upgraded ourselves into 8-bit NE1000 NIcs (was free from local computer shops since nobody was using them) and IPX. We were also using our serial ports for data transfer (Norton Commander anyone?) and 16550 was the new guy in block with VLB multi IO/EIDE controllers. My first modem was an internal 14.400 ISA modem. It was 1995 I think (Turkey was a little bit late to late internet). Upgraded to a Creative 33.600, then a Hayes external 56K (still connected to my daily rig, without a real purpose). never used it since 2005 or something, when I first migrated to DSL.

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Reply 10 of 20, by mockingbird

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Yes, I certainly do remember phoning my ISP and asking them why my internet was so slow with an external modem. The Asus 486SPV3 if I remember the model correctly only had UART 8250 ports. It wasn't exactly as one would think, where the internet would only be half as fast as a 16550 port, it was slow as molasses and completely unusable. This was back in the day when your average ISP tech support was very knowledgeable. I ended up getting an internal modem.

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Reply 11 of 20, by JayCeeBee64

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I started with a 1200 baud internal modem in my uncle's Packard Bell in 1991. Prodigy, CompuServe, AOL, and several BBSs. It was slow but fun, and a very valuable experience.

In 1994 I had a 14.4K internal modem in my first PC build; was replaced in 1995 with this, a Best Data Smart One 2834F 28.8K internal modem:

k6QmEJQl.png

Also had my own phone line and my first ever ISP subscription to explore a new frontier, the Internet. FTP, Usenet, IRC, and the Web - my horizons broadened even more 😁

In 1997 I got the first of 3 external modems:

q1RHD9Jl.png

The best one was the Compaq Microcom 415 56K V.90, very speedy and reliable. These were interesting times - the start of Google and Amazon, the Dot-com Bubble, endless 3D hardware accelerator flame wars, Napster, IRC and FTP servers full of pirated games and software, large Usenet binary newsgroups, Internet forums came of age.

In 2001 I switched to a DSL subscription with my phone provider, and the modems were placed in storage. I still have almost all of them, only the 14.4K internal was lost in an accident in 2005.

Ooohh, the pain......

Reply 12 of 20, by Matth79

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My favourite modem - a Lasat Safire 56K internal ISA that I picked up for a few quid from a computer fair rummage box ... recognized the Rockwell 56k chipset - upgrade firmware from K56flex to V90, and it was storming fast - on newsgroup headers, I was getting about 4x compression and maxing throughput

Reply 13 of 20, by idspispopd

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meisterister wrote:

I've always wanted to get a phone line simulator so that I can have my own godawful modem networking thing. That would certainly make network transfers to some of my Pentium-era laptops a whole lot easier.

A small PBX might do the trick.

Reply 14 of 20, by dacow

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Oh yeah I remember having 8250/16450 UARTS and receiving massive amounts of CRC errors on the higher speed modems 😀

I started with a 1200/75 modem that I bought and had no idea what exactly to do with it or how modems worked (or what BBS'es were for that matter). Ended up with a 2400bps internal modem which I got going and started racking up major phone bills to the annoyance of my parents. Interestingly that Compaq Microcom modem was sold in Aus under the Netcomm banner. I remember having one of those in my family at one point in time.

My two most favourite modems were the Maestro 144FM Elite which retailed for around $699 back in the days.
MODEM020.jpg
Being in high school, I could never afford that kind of money but I was loaned one for a few months from a local computer shop that I got friendly with. I remember nicknaming the modem the Darth Vader modem, it had a full metal casing and was solid. Coming from a 2400 to 14400 bps modem completely blew my mind! I ended up helping run their BBS for work experience. Modems after that started getting all plastic and cheap 🙁

Once I got my own BBS up and running I purchased a Dynalink 33600 which was a clone of the USR Sportster. After spending a fair bit of time on Fidonet Aus.Modems I realised there was the king of all modems at the time the USR V.Everything Courier which retailed for a cool $999 😀 Never ended up getting it and I still ponder about purchasing one if I ever find one but don't think there's any real use for it! I even learnt all the Hayes AT command sets, understood all the different initialisation options, read up all about the ITU-T (and formerly CCITT).

I guess you could go off topic and start talking about Procomm Plus, Telix, Telemate, Terminate terminal programs. Got my hands dirty with all the major BBS Software in Australia at the time (Opus, Maximus, EzyCom, ProBoard, RemoteAccess of course). I never got into the BBS software that seemed more prevelant overseas such as Spitfire, TBBS, MajorBBS, Wildcat just to name a few. Spent hours learning about Fidonet, Frontdoor how it all fit together and eventually got my BBS a point FidoNet address and then eventually applied and received my own FidoNet address.

I think the thing that amazes me is how we managed to learn so much pre-internet. There was no Google or even Altavista back then, and I don't even recall purchasing any books on modems and definitely not on BBS'es or BBS Software. I guess I owe a big thanks Bluewave and QWK , FidoNet and a very close knit friendly Sysop community!

Reply 15 of 20, by chinny22

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Just thought of a use for modems (well a few years out of date)
Think the last new modem I setup was 2006/7 for banking software at a UK company. They had about 5 of them attached to the back of Finance Dept PC's
I removed the last of them in 2012 as the bank was killing off the dial up service.

Reply 16 of 20, by shamino

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Our first modem was a 14.4K Zoom modem. It was an internal ISA card, so the motherboard's serial ports weren't involved.
There was something weird and cheap about how it worked, I think it didn't have hardware based error correction or something like that. A friend complained that whenever I connected to his BBS, sometimes it would cause *his* computer to crash.
I don't think I'd have any problem going back to the slow networking of those days - the online content was geared to work with it so it was fine.
But the thing I really couldn't tolerate is that back in those days, the ISP would bill by the hour. We'd get maybe 10 or 15 hours per *month* free, after that the hourly rate was extreme. I remember downloading a file catalog from AOL - it was a spreadsheet file containing a list of all their downloadable files. This allowed browsing/searching the list without wasting your valuable online time.

Our next modem was one of those awful PCI 56K Winmodems sold by USRobotics. It was an X2 type, not V.90. After that I was given an external V.90 serial port USR/3Com modem, which I still have. By that time the UARTs were a non-issue.

Today I have a bunch of old modems wasting space in a drawer which I never use. If I ever get rid of them, I'll still keep that external USR modem.
I occasionally use an old Pentium laptop's serial port for a diagnostic connection with an old car, but that thing runs a very low baud rate. On my modern desktop, I did make the effort to track down a compatible serial port bracket, but I still haven't made use of it. I should be using it with my UPS, but I still haven't set that up.
I make regular use of parallel for my printer and occasionally for an EPROM programmer. It makes me sad that modern motherboards have replaced all the legacy ports with a needless sea of USB ports.

Reply 17 of 20, by JayCeeBee64

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dacow wrote:

Interestingly that Compaq Microcom modem was sold in Aus under the Netcomm banner. I remember having one of those in my family at one point in time.

You're right, it has the same look; only difference is the color and lettering. Probably a reference design used by different manufacturers and branded accordingly.

Ooohh, the pain......

Reply 18 of 20, by win95

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I remember those days fondly. Went from 2400 to 14400 then Got the PPI 28.8LCD. It's one of my favorite peripherils of all time. There was a program called lcdset32 that you could use to make a custom message on the screen, my neighbor and I called it "HAL" sent it in to be upgraded to 56k got it back and took it apart and brought the EEPROM to work and flashed my neighbors : ) That was a great time to be into computers. One thing hasn't changed if the internet is down the PC doesn't get used much.

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Reply 19 of 20, by Scali

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Yes, I remember those days!
My first modem was a 2400 baud one, which I used on my Amiga and my PC (I think I had a 386SX-16 at the time). Got my first touch of being 'online', with local BBSes and such, downloading shareware games, apps and demoscene-related stuff.
Later upgraded to a 28k8 Tornado modem. I still have it, but I probably can't use it anymore, because my 'phoneline' is VOIP.
This is the modem that first got me on the internet. With a 486DX2-66, which has a VLB multi-IO card, with the venerable 16550 UARTs. I still have that 486 as well.

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