While it is true most all the hardware we use has changed a lot over the years, its hard to imagine a better example of change than the way we connect to our data sources.   I have a funny story on this link to www.TechnologyRulers.com which shows how we went from drums and waving flaming sticks to smartphones and the modem history is almost as odd and funny to me.

  My first dialup modem was a Novation Cat acoustic coupled modem, You would dial the number on your standard desk phone, then put the handset in to the rubber cups on the modem.  The modem could not dial for you.  Best speed was 110 baud..  not kilobaud but just 110 baud.. I  think most of us can type faster than that. 


lrg novation  I used the Novation Cat with my Tandy TRS-80 model 1 by the way.  I recently put the VideoText software manual from this early online service (combined with COMPUSERVE) on ebay for sale.. About the only thing I can remember using it for was some early "email" messages (I don't think we called them Email yet..lol) and looking up stock prices.  A screen full of text (no graphics) would take nearly a minute sometimes to fill in.

 The next modem I remember using was a 300 baud "direct connect" modem for Commodore Vic20 or C-64.  While it could not dial either, it let you take the cord for your telephone handset and plug it in directly instead of acoustically using a handset. You still had to dial the phone yourself.

 My first "High Speed" modem was finally an autodial model. Blazing fast (ha ha ha) 1200 baud connections were possible with this piece of technology.  This was another one for the Commodore series. It was small and plugged into the back of the computer itself, but now could dial or answer the phone on incoming calls when used with the right software. My first attempt at a BBS was done with a Commodore C64 and only a floppy disk.  I would start the BBS program from a disk, then swap in a disk with software that was shared by the BBS.  I ran it only late nights and weekends as it used our home phone line, but the fun of finding other users and sharing things was real and as soon as I could we got a separate phone line for the BBS. 

  More history on the BBS can be in another article..  so lets get back to modems and their progression. For a while the 1200 baud modem was pretty much the top... then Hayes and others did a 2400 baud which was twice as fast. Along about this time, if I remember correctly, some modems started having error reduction circuitry built in - so that files were sent in blocks and if a particular block was bad, it would resend it till it got it correctly. This was a big improvement over earlier modems which often got errors when a noisy phone line was a problem.  Seeing a misplaced or mis-spelling in a text as part of an email or menu was not so back, but if you were downloading a program file - well that could cause it not to work at all. Picture 50 thousand characters having to be sent and received with no errors before a program would work - and you know why error correcting protocols were such a help.

  I don't think we had any 4800 baud modems, but jumped straight to 9600 baud units. They were pretty expensive at first and interestingly enough some phone companies would sell you (at extra cost) a phone line which was better quality so that your 9600 would work better.  The brains of the day said that due to the tones involved the top possible speed no matter what would be 9600. Faster service took ISDN lines and such and they got very expensive.  I put a video conference system in for a major oil company back then, and it took two modems and two ISDN phone lines to get the speed they needed for a reasonable quality video chat. Such lines could cost hundreds of dollars a month, and the cost of the video conference gear, if I remember correctly, was over 20,000 dollars.  Today most cell phones can video chat better than that and we don't consider the cost usually as its part of the service and features.

   We of course as the predominate modem design we saw back in the late 1990s was faster than 9600, we must have figured out a way to cram more data into a phone line... and we did - first with 14,400 baud modems and later with 28,800 baud.  These used a trick to alter the wave form of the audio so more data could be used without higher tone frequencies.. and they took that up to 33,600 and then the 56k or 56,000 baud.  Today that is terribly slow compared to DSL and wi-fi hookups.  56k modems could send around 5k of data per second, and even the slowest DSL today in small towns can do 300k per second, with better quality DSL or CABLE modem and internet providers doing more than 10 times faster than that and even higher in some areas today.

  One of my oldest modems for a odd museum piece is a boxy critter that did 1200 baud only on fixed lines (no dial up) and its about the size of a big shoe box and has 5 or 6 separate circuit boards inside. It weighs maybe 8 to 10 pounds. Compare this to a tiny laptop modem card not much bigger than a postage stamp that can go 56,000 baud and dial and answer a phone line... quite a bit of improvement over the last 4 decades, and with the new push to get better and faster broadband services to the rural areas that is going on now, who knows what we will have in a year or two.

  I hope you enjoyed this little visit on memory lane.. lol   more to come    please feel free to comment by email using our contact form, or on the message forums.  

  SysOp Mike