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Randy Suess, computer bulletin board inventor, dies at 74

Mr. Suess, pictured in 2004, and a fellow computer hobbyist built the system in 1978.
Mr. Suess, pictured in 2004, and a fellow computer hobbyist built the system in 1978.Jason Scott via The New York Times

Randy Suess, a computer hobbyist who helped build the first online bulletin board, anticipating the rise of the Internet, messaging apps, and social media, died on Dec. 10 at a hospital in Chicago. He was 74.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Karrie.

In late January 1978, Suess was part of an early home computer club called the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists’ Exchange. He and another club member, an IBM engineer named Ward Christensen, had been discussing an idea for a new kind of computer messaging system but hadn’t had time to explore it. Then a blizzard hit the Great Lakes region, covering Chicago in more than 40 inches of snow.

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As the city shut down, Christensen phoned Mr. Suess to say that they finally had enough time to build their new system. Christensen suggested they get help from the other members of the club, but, as he recalled in an interview, Mr. Suess told him that would be a mistake because others would just slow the project down.

“Forget the club. It would just be management by committee,” Christensen recalled Mr. Suess saying, noting that he was a self-taught computer technician whose decisions typically came hard and fast. “It’s just me and you. I will do the hardware, and you will do the software.”

The idea was to build a central computer that club members could connect to, using their own computers and telephone lines. They thought of it as an electronic version of the cork bulletin boards on the walls of grocery stores where anyone could post paper fliers.

Two weeks later, their system was up and running, and the club was trading messages about meetings, new ideas, and new projects.

“It was a ‘meta’ system,” Christiansen said. “It was all about computers.”

At first, Mr. Suess suggested they call it CEC, short for Computer Elites’ Communication Project, but they eventually settled on Computerized Bulletin Board System, or CBBS.

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In the late 1970s and on into the ’80s, as word of their system spread through trade magazines and word-of-mouth, hobbyists across the country built their own online bulletin boards, offering everything from real-time chat rooms to video games. These grass-roots services were the forerunners of globe-spanning social media services like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

“Everything we do in terms of communicating with other people online can be traced back to Randy and his bulletin board,” said Jason Scott, a computer history archivist who made an online documentary about the creation of CBBS. “The only difference is that now it is all a little slicker.”

Randy John Suess was born on Jan. 27, 1945, in Skokie, Ill., about 15 miles north of downtown Chicago. His father, Miland, was a police officer in nearby Lincolnwood, and his mother, Ruth (Duppenthaler) Suess, was a nurse.

After serving two years in the Navy and attending the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, Mr. Suess held a variety of technical jobs in and around the city, including positions with IBM and Zenith. Like Christensen, he joined the new Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists’ Exchange in the summer of 1975. It was one of many such do-it-yourself computer clubs popping up around the country.

Mr. Suess and Christiansen built their electronic bulletin board using a personal computer called the S-100. After adding a modem that could send and receive data across a phone line, Mr. Suess soldered together some additional hardware that could automatically restart the machine and then load Christiansen’s software whenever someone dialed in.

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“Randy pretty much built it from scratch,” Christiansen said. “It looked like it was put together with bailing wire and chewing gum.”

Christiansen offered to run the system from his home in Dolton, Ill., south of the city. But Mr. Suess, who lived in the Wrigleyville section of Chicago, insisted that it stay in his basement so anyone in the city could dial in without paying long-distance charges. By the time they retired the system in the 1980s, its single phone line had received more than half a million calls.

Mr. Suess had by then built a much larger system called Chinet — short for Chicago Network — which connected to the Internet via a satellite radio. The Internet was so small that he could download the whole thing onto his machine in a single evening. Others could then browse this global collection of data, including a new version of CBBS, through 22 phone lines plugged into a bank of modems on a wall.

Some dialed in from as far away as Australia and Singapore. Mr. Suess’ son, Ryan, remembered hearing the staticky whine of the modems at all hours of the day and night. “Eventually it just becomes white noise,” he said.

In addition to his son and his daughter Karrie, Mr. Suess is survived by another daughter, Christine, and three grandchildren. His marriages to Agnes Kluck and Dawn Hendricks ended in divorce.

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Forty years after its debut, a version of CBBS was still up and running, and anyone could access it, even from a laptop or a smartphone. This month, the bulletin board spread word about Mr. Suess’ death.