Roundtable (RT) was a modem-based text chat system located in the Clear Lake City, Texas area near Houston for 3 years in the mid-1980s frequented by local Bulletin Board System (BBS) users. The first 8 phone lines were installed in October, 1984, and the system was shut down by November, 1987. Roundtable was created, owned, and operated by Jim Penny and his son Bruce. Roundtable was officially known as the Freelancin’ Roundtable, as it was the chat counterpart to the Freelancin’ BBS. RT was the first of its kind in the Houston area.
Jim Penny developed RT as his first hobby after retiring from Ford Aerospace at NASA. He was an Aggie electrical engineer working part time as a contract tester for a startup computer manufacturer, Compaq. His final job was teaching lab courses in electronics at Texas A&M University at Galveston.
Roundtable was not a BBS, but simply a chat system that was independent from the BBS. One used a personal computer with a modem and analog phone line to place a phone call to the chat system. Once connected, you logged in with only a password, indicated what handle or name you would use, and then type messages to the other users who were also connected at that time. The user interface was totally text-based and used no graphics.
Roundtable existed on a TRS-80 computer running custom-written software created by Jim Penny the sysop. The modems were 300 baud. To support 8 and (later) 16 modems on a 2 MHz Z80-based computer, the software ran in a continuous loop polling each port 30 times a second, in that time it read a byte from the modem, wrote one pending byte of output to the modem, and performed any user requests including the few simple single-character commands available. To make login faster, a user's password was a hexadecimal address in the program code and the four bytes found at that address.
The user interface was remarkably clean and clutter-free. Text appeared in real-time, and was displayed line-by-line on the screen similar to IRC. New text would appear at the bottom of the screen and move up as more new text appeared.
A notable feature of the system was the scroll. The scroll was simply a log of previous text conversation that one could read when first logging on, or any time. This enabled a person to catch up on what people were writing. At any time while logged on, a user could hit the left arrow key to re-list the previous lines of text. Pressing the arrow key once yielded the most recent message. Two press of the arrow yielded the two previous messages, etc. Repeated presses of the left arrow would take you further and further back in the scroll until you hit the beginning of the buffered conversation. This was dangerous, there were long-standing bugs that could trigger an infinitely scrolling (scrooling) never-ending repetition of the scrolled text... the dreaded "scrool monster"... and the only defense was to log out. When a user logged on while numerous users were chatting, they would commonly type "scroolin'" to let the user users know they were reading the scroll. You could type a message while the system was scrolling.
In addition to RT, there was a separate system called Sanctuary that was reserved for privileged users.
Each user’s username was prefaced by a capital letter and a ) character. The <> symbol was used to log off. There were other commands as well, but they were simple and fit with the elegant, clean interface of the system.
Roundtable was not free. Usage was billed on a per-minute basis. The fee was 3 cents per minute. After using $50 of time in a month, the user incurred no more fees that month. This was referred to as ‘maxing’ or being ‘maxed’. After spending $500, the user was considered to be ‘super maxed’ and could continue to use the system for free forever.
Some time after Roundtable gained a large number of users, Jim and Bruce created Penny Net (PN). PN was targeted to younger users, and the cost was a penny a minute. The idea was to keep the kids in a separate area, and offer a lower fee to encourage them to go there.
During the three years of RT's life there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of users that came and went. Some knew each other, but others were more obscure and used the system only a short time. Some users logged in on a seasonal basis such as when home from college for the summer.
Some of the more memorable users were: Bourbon Cowboy, Cheshire Cat, Liz, The Edge, Travelerwayne, Who, GL, Drkilljoy, Max, Angel, Tim Leary, Airman, Clash, Half Carbon-based Android, Zombie, Lil'Red, Phoenix, Dusty, Cosmos, Ces, Randy, Field Engineer/Giraffe, Arielle, Miroc, Honda, RCMP, Phoenix/Armchair Thief, Kahula WanderMaui, Neva, Denny, Wyvern, Billy Pilgrim, Eric (0 Trump), and Boe. Jimpen, the sysop, was known as Jimpen and his son Bruce was known as Guido.
There were many real-life gatherings of RT users. Several of the parties centered around the bay area southeast of Houston because many of the users lived in that area, but other parties were located in the southwest, northwest, possibly other parts of Houston as well.
RT Hacks and Add-ons
One hack that was successfully used on RT was to type a message of some general comment or statement, but before hitting the Enter key, one could then type in the appropriate text to spoof another user's handle and comments. This could be used to spoof messages from the "System Administrator" which could be used to trick users into revealing their passwords. This was not necessarily a flaw in the software, but because the whole system was text-based, any user could make any text appear on the screen, even text that was normally only output by the system itself such as the (> characters and any user's username. New users were the main ones fooled by this trick, however; it did not seem to be a widespread problem.
Another short-lived hack was to exchange encrypted messages in open chat. Users spinee and sbe (Robert Hess) created an encryption algorithm consisting of simple substitution using a hashing algorithm. This was incorporated into a communications program called spineeTERM, and allowed Apple II users to communicate with one another in a "private public" channel. The algorithm was given to a user using an IBM PC (Jay Maynard) who used it to write a customized terminal program OERTERM ("obnoxious elitist rude terminal program") (the name probably derived from the general attitude toward spineeTERM users). This allowed PC users in on the encrypted messages, which suddenly became less annoying. Both programs, though, had the ability to encrypt using any word as the "key" to generate the hash table, so that it was possible for people to use differing keys if they had previously agreed upon them. Encrypted messages began and ended with the string "~~", and annoyed users would sometimes type their plaintext messages between these strings, causing them to appear as gibberish to the users of the encrypting programs.
~~A wpdi2dk wpskdll qpowo lsdo woqppqpq, wosidl ele!~~
OERTERM and the competing Captain Midnight Secret Encoder Term used a simple Caesar cipher. This was adequate for the mostly humorous use of the program, similar to ROT13 on Usenet.
RT was taken offline in November 1987.
RT, Penny Net and Sanctuary used commercial-class phone lines. According to Southwestern Bell’s (SWB) filed tariff, a multi-line rollover option was only available on commercial-class service. Personal-class service required each modem to have a separate phone number. The price differential was approximately 3 to 1. RT’s competitors were offered and accepted rollover on personal class service in apparent violation of the filed tariff. When the Pennys requested an explanation, SWB denied any violation. The Pennys then filed a Texas Deceptive Trade Practice suit in Federal Court. SWB argued that all administrative remedies had to be exhausted through the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) prior to any federal suit. The Penny’s attorney, Lynn Klement, successfully argued before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Penny v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., (906 F2d 183 (5th Cir. 1990)), that the PUC could not grant the full remedy sought and that the federal case should proceed. Just prior to the start of trial in federal court, the case was settled in a sealed agreement.
A Usenet post dated October 1988 states, "Bruce Penny (Sysop of the now defunct Freelancin' Sanctuary and Roundtable) has been working on a lawsuit against SW Bell for some time..."
Other Chat Systems
After the success of RT and Penny Net, others created their own chat systems for fun and profit. One popular system was Houston Chat Channel (HCC). Also, RT user Rande created a sy system called Rendezvous which was eventually sold to a user named Dusty. This system was created using hand-built 1200 baud modems, as modems were the most expensive components of a chat system like this and money could be saved by building them from scratch which is an amazing concept in today's world of almost disposable computer hardware.
Rande also ran a DDial called Interact.
Roundtable Emulator Project
A Roundtable emulator was developed starting in September 2006, and is currently still in operation (August 2008). The emulator effort was spearheaded by a genuine former RT user and backed by documentation from the era including original end-user instruction pages and dot matrix printouts of live RT chat sessions.
The emulator attempts to reproduce the original experience as closely as possible, substituting a telnet session for the original dialup connection. The emulator is up and running and is currently undergoing authenticity refinement and testing. Please visit www.rt2.us to get more information about the emulator project. Former RT users, enthusiasts from the era, and other interested people are encouraged to make contact and request a login! The emulator is located via telnet at rt2.citx.com:9000