Computers Talking on the Phone

Marcos Chiquetto mar 13 2023

By Marcos Chiquetto

The year: 1994. Early Monday morning. The BBS machine is furiously answering calls in our translation agency in São Paulo, Brazil. A lot of translators are delivering jobs.

– Wait a minute. What’s this about a BBS machine? What is that?

Ah. I forgot we’re in 2021. Let me explain.

Up until the decade of the 80s, when we had to deliver a text to someone, there was only one way: to deliver paper with printed text. But beginning around 1990, a new revolutionary process took the world by storm: the connecting of two computers through the telephone network. You installed a MODEM (Modulator-Demodulator) board in your computer and you could send and receive data through your telephone line (a cellular phone was still an exclusive luxury item) by connecting to another computer that was equipped with a MODEM.

– And who made and received the calls?

The MODEM board did. You programmed the telephone numbers corresponding to the computers you wanted to communicate with, and your computer would dial the number. On the other end of the line, the other computer would answer the call and establish communication. Then, using the keyboard, you would send your files and the person on the other end, also sitting in front of a keyboard, would receive them and save them.

MODEM Board, with jacks for telephone line input/output

– And did it take much time?

More or less. The typical commercially available MODEM at that time communicated at a rate of 9600 bits per second. That’s approximately 1kbyte per second. Just so that you have an idea, a typical photo taken nowadays on a cell phone comprises 200 kbytes. That means that transmitting a single photo of the kind we routinely take these days would take 200 seconds (about 3 minutes). In order to transmit a small Photoshop file like the ones we currently generate, which might easily be 5 Mbytes, it would take approximately 2 hours back then. For the type of more complex art that is created today, you would have had to wait up to several days for the transmission to be completed.

But we didn’t experience these long transmission times. First, because files with complex graphics were not common like they are nowadays. Graphics back then were generally very simple, with low resolution, resulting in much smaller files. Secondly, because the files we worked with were almost always just text, which contained only codes representing letters and formatting commands. In practice, the transference of a large text document only took a few minutes.

However, this system had a very significant limitation: it only worked when you had a person on each end of the line. So, if you wanted to send a file, first you had to call recipients on the telephone to let them know you were going to send a file, so that a person on the other end could get ready to receive it.

To take better advantage of this new technology, a type of system called BBS (Bulletin Board System) arose, which was basically an electronic bulletin board. One computer, with BBS software installed, operated as a server for the system, answering and automatically handling calls from the remote computers using it. Providing a system of user addresses, the BBS allowed for the exchange of messages and files. You would connect with the BBS through a dialed call and leave a message for your friend there. When your friend entered, he or she would receive the message together with whatever file you had left. These systems, which were generally public and administered by service providers, were the precursors of today’s message systems, with the limitation being that you could only exchange messages with other users of the same BBS.

Back in the 1990´s, BBS systems were usually hosted in machines compatible with IBM-PC

Translation agencies soon realized that this would be an excellent tool for facilitating their workflow, and installed their own private BBS systems, whose users were project managers, translators, reviewers, and editors. To send a job to a professional, the project manager would enter a message and a file into the BBS and make a phone call to let her or him know that a job was available. The translator would then call the BBS via MODEM, download the material and instructions, perform the work, and return it through the same system.

– And if you worked for an agency in another country?

Easy. All you had to do was to make an expensive international call and transfer your file, praying that no error would occur during the transmission, so you wouldn’t have to call again.

Since translators were not willing to absorb these high costs, the first large multilingual agencies based in the United States and Western Europe, who at that time were starting to hire translators all over the world, created call-back systems: the professional would call the agency´s computer just to let it know that he or she wanted to communicate and that computer would automatically call them back. This way, the communication would be established, and the cost would be borne by the agency.

Back at that time, our agency was already providing translations for HP via a large multilingual agency headquartered in Houston; and to receive or deliver files, our computer would call Houston and immediately hang up. Then we would receive the call-back and transfer our file via the telephone line, as an ordinary phone call. Believe it or not!!

Having learned from this company in Houston, we were one of the first Brazilian agencies, if not the first, to implement this type of system in 1994.

I started this post on a typical Monday in that year, with the BBS machine answering calls non-stop. That’s how it was. Our BBS machine answered calls from dozens of professionals all day long, delivering and receiving work. For each connection, the MODEM would display on the screen the information related to the incoming call and send to the computer speaker the sound of the communication being established, which was a high-pitched squeal. So, on a busy day the BBS machine would constantly be answering calls, issuing its shrill howl and transferring files.

– But why wasn’t this done over the Internet? It would have been much simpler!

Indeed, it would have been much simpler if this service existed. However, in the early 1990s, the Internet, which was initially developed for military purposes, had only been expanded to the academic community for the exchange of research data and scientific articles. It was in the middle of that decade that the Internet became available to the general public and spread all over the world as a commercial product.

Even so, in the beginning, using the Internet wasn’t that different from the BBS system, because it was the BBS providers who were the first to offer access to the Internet through dialed calls over telephone lines. Your computer dialed a telephone number, and when the provider’s computer answered you would hear the squeals of the computers talking to each other as you got into the Internet with information being transferred at a snail’s pace.

Anyone who is more than 30 years old will remember what it was like.

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