The Cleveland Free-Net Atari SIG

by Michael Current, 10/7/2000 I first found the Cleveland Free-Net Atari SIG in 1990. Yes, before Tim Berners-Lee came up with the World Wide Web concept and wrote the first web browser for NeXTSTEP, most of us used the Internet for three things: e-mail, FTP, and Telnet. I was in college with my Atari 130XE. With 128K RAM and running at 1.79 MHz, it was a computer design already 10 years old, but it was more than adequate for all my computing needs, and I had been a big Atari computer fan since our family bought an Atari 800 when I was in 5th grade. I did all my college papers, and even some of my computer science programming projects, on my Atari. I had also just gotten my first modem, an Atari SX212 1200-baud screamer, so that I could dial into the campus VAX and impress my friends by VAXing in my dorm room. Even more impressive was the ability to download files from FTP sites from around the country and around the world, via FTP to the VAX, then XMODEM download to my Atari. The slow response time somehow increased the drama. I was beginning to discover a whole world of Atari users out there I had only read about in Antic magazine, and had also begun to discover in the Info-Atari8 Digest e-mail discussion list. I was aware that this list was a second-hand distribution of postings to something called comp.sys.atari.8bit, a Usenet newsgroup. My college didn't have Usenet, but I wanted access. I got myself a computer account at the other college in town solely to get access to Usenet and comp.sys.atari.8bit, but this approach had its limitations and I looked for other ways to get at it. Finally I found I could read (and eventually post to) comp.sys.atari.8bit at a popular Telnet site called the Cleveland Free-Net. The Free-Net was an important stepping-stone in the evoluation of the Internet. Initially conceived of as a free community BBS system offered through Case Western Reserve University, when they started offering access and accounts to anyone in the world who could telnet in over the Internet, the Cleveland Free-Net was, for a time, one of the most important resources and virtual meeting places on the Internet. They released the source-code for their software, and soon other Free-Nets popped up in other communities, just a few at first, but picking up from there. All the Free-Nets together were supposed to be called the NPTN, the National Public Telecomputing Network. The Cleveland Free-Net was the original and was always the most maturely developed. While I initally found it as an access point to comp.sys.atari.8bit, I very quickly found that there was an Atari SIG on the Cleveland Free-Net as well. Being an avid Atari user, I posted often. Soon I made a tradition for myself of posting Info-Atari8 Digest mailings to the Atari SIG for my fellow users there. I did this often and regularly enough that I got the attention of the main and original Atari SIG manager, Len Stys. It might have been another year or so, but Len soon put me in charge of 8-Bit Computers Support for the Atari SIG. I really had a blast with this. Collecting and organizing 8-bit Atari information, and honing my online 8-bit Atari question-answering skills were activities that I enjoyed very much, and hopefully got to be fairly good at too. We thought of ourselves as a free alternative to the commercial online services like CompuServe, GEnie, and Delphi. Have to mention here perhaps my crowning achievement for the CFN Atari SIG: the nearly complete collection of more than 200 issues of Z*Magazine, the Atari online magazine from Ron Kovacs dating back into the prime BBS era. This project was harder than it sounds, because the files were found from many different sources, and were found in a variety of different text formats. In posting them all to the Atari SIG in plain ASCII format, I had to rather manually do searching and replacing and reformatting of different kinds on most of those 200+ issues to get it done "right." Since I simultaneously contributed all the issues to the FTP archive at the University of Michigan, similar Z*Mag collections are found all over the Internet and on the various CD-ROM collections by now. But only the set posted on the Atari SIG was in a single, readable text format, and the other sets based on the Univ. of Michigan FTP site owe their existence to this project for the Cleveland Free-Net Atari SIG. Also along the way I started the 8-bit Atari FAQ and a year later the Vendor/Developer lists for the comp.sys.atari.8bit Usenet newsgroup, but development of those lists were probably stunted a little bit because there was only so much of my time, and I always found the time necessary to manage the 8-Bit Computers Support section of the Atari SIG as best as I felt I could. But time moved on. By 1999, a character-based environment seemed quite archaic to most people now used to the point-and-click environment of the World Wide Web, and the Cleveland Free-Net Atari SIG had seen very little activity for several years. I had started thinking about making sure the information we'd collected there over the years got saved for the future, but the idea became much more pressing when it was announced that the Cleveland Free-Net would be shut down for good on September 30, 1999. (Turns out the systems were not Y2K-compliant, and there was little money or interest to make them so.) Based on his work building a full-text online archive of the complete run of Antic magazine, with the full blessing of the former publisher, I contacted Kevin Savetz about an online web archive of the Cleveland Free-Net Atari SIG. Mentioning he had been thinking of the idea as well, he gratiously agreed. This site is the results of those efforts. I never had a modem during the glory days of BBSing with 8-bit computers during the 80's. But the unique, character-based BBS/telnet site we knew as the Cleveland Free-Net will always have its own place in virtual community history as well, and I will personally always be able to look back with fond memories of what happened on the Cleveland Free-Net Atari SIG over those years. I hope you enjoy what you find here as well.
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