Let us give vintage modems some love. Like printers, these often despised and evil peripherals got their name from being slow and causing our systems to be tied up for hours on end. But they also allowed the beginnings of digital telecom for the home. They enabled services such as The Source, Compuserve, Prodigy, early America Online, and personal BBS'es. Even practical personal banking. And that's not to mention the professional/industrial uses. And they would usher in the internet.
So what was your personal modem history, what was it like? What modem(s) did you have back in the day? Tell us some stories and list what you owned.
Hayes Micromodem II
..for my Apple II in the 70's and very early 80's. It ran at 110/300 baud (Bell 103 standard) and came in two pieces, an internal card and an external electrical coupler/relay box. Not an acoustic coupler. It came with a nice manual that was practically a tutorial on telecommunications. Today it great nostalgic reference.
I did tons of wardialing with this spent many a quiet-evening into the early hours watching it dial out. The little red light flashing on and off to indicate off-hook status. It was equally thrilling to sit around and read astronomy books while WaReZ would come in from some far off distant, nebulous land, which only had form in our imaginations. It took somewhere between 1.25 - 1.50 hours to transfer a full Apple II floppy. Or in perhaps more familiar terms. 1 minute to send Atari VCS Combat cartridge. Or a full day for a ~3MB digital photo.
Things like X-Modem, Y-Modem, or Z-Modem were important. Because the amount of ACK they would or wouldn't do - some were faster in some situations. Some would require a restart at the 11th hour when a disk was almost done. Some would auto-restart from the last packet. And some worked better at certain times of the day/night when the lines were "clear".
There were little or no hacks for this modem. Nor did it become "famous" and desired like the future Apple-Cat II. But many programs did support it as a matter of default. In fact I always thought most modems were well supported back in the day.
Some innovative software like DFX II had been written with this modem in mind. This would allow two-way realtime typing while a transfer happened in the background. It also allowed you to transfer Hi-Res pictures and see them as they arrived. It took many minutes to see it form on the screen however.
And of course there was the venerable workhorse of ASCII Express, known as AE. It was nice terminal, and pirates found out how to make AE Lines out of it. Basically it was a simple BBS that let you catalog/send/receive files remotely. AutoAnswer, leave message, and ChatSysop were other basic functions. All a pirate would ever need BITD.
I had lots of imaginary fun with this modem, like calling the Voyager 2 spacecraft directly! I even built circuits to help me do that. And trying to use it as a voice-recognition card and goldfish communicator. And it was fun to write stories about it all. Hey! I was a kid then! This modem was responsible for some $400 phone bills. And for launching lots of imaginary flights of fancy. But I did call into JPL for real and got pictures from Voyager 2 that way.
Novation Apple-Cat II
I recall getting this for the Apple II+ and //e sometime in 1980 or 1981. From Northbrook Computers. I explained to my parents that the lines would be less tied up and I could finish more quickly. I picked this modem because I liked the name. Second only to speed. Little did I know it would have a cult following with all kinds of hackers writing all kinds of amusing tools and utilities for it - including a music player, a sound recorder, a voice recognition card, DTMF encoder-decoder, BOX simulator, and even a realtime accurate clock that worked off the timing of the modem circuitry. This pseudo-clock was a step above a software clock which lost accuracy during disk access. It was a step below a real clock card because it lost time when powered off. But it was FREE!! And clock cards made your BBS "elite" back in the day. To see current time on the screen was near magical!
Moving up to 1200 baud (half-duplex) was a godsend, and despite being only half-duplex it worked well. Game trading was usually a one-direction affair anyways. And 300 or 1200 baud was fine for text purposes anyways.
As I read through the manual and examined the card I found it had all sorts of connections on it. It had 2 empty slots for chips like DTMF and Hayes-like firmware. I got the firmware right away. But the DTMF decoder would come later because of cost. I rather quickly upgraded this with the 212 expansion card. This allowed full-duplex Bell 212 communications, 1200 baud both ways simultaneously! Incredible.
It had a handset connector for voice/talk. It had an RS-232 connector for external RS-232 port. A tape-recorder controller, BSR interface, and of course the 212 card connector. And possibly more I'm forgetting at this very second.
That's a lot of stuff. Not only could I expand the host computer as usual, I could expand its telecom subsystem.
This became a workhorse modem for me and it was supported by plenty of hacker-written tools, many of which were nicely done. And ProTerm supported it along with ASCII Express.
I got this modem likely sometime in the 1986-1987 timeframe. Right after I got the Amiga 500. I got it not because I wanted speed, but because I wanted a way to get Amiga games. It never worked out like for the Apple II. Nor was it as magical or inspiring. I was out of high-school by then and my network of Apple II buddies quickly dissipated. And there were little or no local BBS numbers to call. By this time I couldn't get away with $500 phone bills anymore either. And so this modem didn't see a lot of usage.
It was 2400 baud of course, and it was noticeably faster especially with Z-Modem protocol. And that I found intriguing. I was unclear if it did data compression or not, but Z-Modem was quicker than the X or Y protocols.
It was my first all-serial-interface and external modem and thus felt somewhat less integrated than the Apple II solutions. It felt somewhat disconnected from everything (no pun intended). It was my first real introduction to the AT-command set. And to a kid discovering cars and women, it was rather hard to concentrate on learning it all. And most Amiga telecom packages (being new too) didn't always get it right. Nor did the packages handle any Supra specific registers or codes. It was barely enough to dial out and get "online". The whole Amiga telecom experience was rather disjointed and I felt that none of the pieces truly fit together. There was a lot of extraneous "stuff" that didn't apply. There was a lot of bloat and useless things. Things that only a freeware author could love. I didn't like all-of-a-sudden having to deal with the AT command set. Never had that nonsense before on the Apple II.
It was a solidly built and reliable modem however. And I liked the row of status lights. I wished my first two modems had such a display. All in all it was the right modem paired to the wrong machine.
Practical Peripherals PM14400FX
In 1992/1993 when I was getting going with the MS-DOS world and PCs in earnest I got my first PC, it was a 486 from Gateway 2000. A rather nice IBM-PC clone. I remember I had to keep the price around $2,100 and no more. So therefore I did not get a modem with it, or even a soundcard or videocard. I would get those as the system arrived. I got the videocard first. A massive 1MB Cirrus Logic 5422 based board, the memory was massive not the board. Well..
My SupraModem 2400 filled in till I could get something internal for the machine. I always liked internal modems for some reason or other. Probably because I grew up with them on the Apple II. And they felt integrated and part of the machine.
One bright sunny day I would come home from CompUSA with this PM14400FX. You may have guessed it was a 14.4K baud modem. I had found my dream modem! It did everything all my other modems had done and more. And it was internal and fit in a standard ISA slot. I farted around with some shareware terminals, and they were pretty good. This PM modem handled it all and the Hayes AT-command set seemed well supported on the terminal and the hardware side. I was BBS'ing in no time. There were tons of PC-based boards to call. And 14.4K baud even let me call long distance for short amounts of time, expanding my choices even further all the while keeping connection costs down below $200.
I liked this modem because it felt all-integrated, it was not one of the yet-to-come winmodems. And it had a simulated on-screen LED status display. I eventually somehow got ProComm Plus and it was like having a full-blown modem control center. A central-ops kind of thing. Not unlike how I dreamed about having on the Apple II. I did lots of online one-on-one gaming with Doom and Duke3D. All the AT-command codes were handled behind the scenes.
The box and packaging were great. A full color pic of the actual modem on the front, and all the specifications and features on the back. Something you do not find today.
Minus the magic and glory of a child's imagination this modem did everything I expected and more. This modem had some of the best user documentation I had seen to date. And being in the PC ecosphere it was supported by everything.
Supra Express 56K Modem
This was one of my fastest and last modems I would purchase. The Practical Peripherals modem made no mention of the internet, and that in 1992/1993. In 1997/1998 this 56K modem mentioned it all over the box, but not as flamboyantly as some of the consumer-grade U.S. Robotics stuff did.
I liked this modem, because again, it was feature-complete. It supported all the protocols like V. and Bell all the way back to 300 baud. Not that I was doing much with 300 baud in 1997. I got this modem because it was piled sky-high in BigBox, right near the door too. Imagine that today! Anyways, I had tried doing internet on the 14.4 modem, but too slow. This new 56.6 modem handled America Online seemingly just fine. And I kept it in service to about 2001/2002 at which point I got a cable modem.
As the internet was getting underway, there were three standards for speed. This modem supported all the old standards and K56Flex and V90. But not X2 which was a USR standard. I could handle having three standards but it seemed like the first annoying break in PC compatibility (in the consumer arena). Some products supported either K56Flex or V90 or X2. I suppose I was lucky to get one that could upgrade to V90. And eventually V90 became widely accepted.
I'm sure standards competed in other aspects and subsystems of the PC ecosphere, but this was one noted by everyday consumers more than ever.
I loved AOL, it introduced me to the internet. And every one of the categories I clicked on was one big adventure after another. After than I pretty much stopped bothering with individual BBSes and therefore didn't do many file transfers at 56K speeds.
It was the last traditional phone-line modem I bought.
By now the modem had become a necessary commodity and the industry looked at ways to integrate modems into laptop motherboards and such. And they started showing up as $29 riser-type cards. Thus was born the "Winmodem". A bastardized hybrid mix of software and hardware - a little before its time. They relied on the main CPU to do a lot of the timing and protocol handling, and all that remained was physical interface to the phone line. And they required OS specific drivers and layers. A "softmodem" if you will. And it took a noticeable amount of CPU power (back then) to run them. Today it wouldn't be a problem, and we have "soft" LAN, Sound, and many other things taken over by software in lieu of dedicated hardware. Or rather hardware on the CPU & Chipset itself.
My first two modems were genuinely magical, the Hayes Micromodem II and Apple-Cat II. Magical because a whole new world of technology was opening up. As time went on, they became less magical and more commonplace.
Eventually in 2001-2002 I would get a cablemodem and at that point paid no attention to QAM or any sort of protocol layers, OSI layers, or anything technical. Plugged it in and it was gofast.
A few years back I purchased a few of the vintage USR modems, ones I wanted as a kid and never could afford. Just cool to have, cool to look at and contemplate. Same thing with some of the iconic Aluminum ingot Hayes SmartModems.