The Telnettable TRS-80 and
The Story of Searchlight BBS
by Frank LaRosa

The First Searchlight

One day in 1985 I decided to create a BBS. So I started hacking out some BASIC code on my TRS-80 and in a few weeks, Searchlight BBS was born.

Over the next two years, Searchlight got lots of new features and hardware upgrades. But by 1987, I knew it was time to retire the old TRS-80 and take Searchlight to the next level.

Going Commercial

I wrote the PC version of Searchlight BBS in Turbo Pascal and released it as a shareware program in 1987. It was the first BBS with a full screen text editor and a built-in remote DOS shell. Sales took off! Searchlight became one of the staples of BBS software, appearing regularly in Boardwatch magazine and at BBS conventions across the country. By 1994 we were supporting RIP graphics, DigiBoards, FidoNet, and Zmodem – what more could you ask for?

The Internet

The dialup BBS peaked around 1995 when the Internet became a big deal. Later versions of Searchlight offered internet email and telnet connectivity, and Searchlight Software eventually produced a full-blown web applications server called Spinnaker to replace Searchlight BBS.

Alas, Searchlight couldn’t compete with the likes of Netscape and Microsoft for a share of the web server market. The last copies of Searchlight and Spinnaker rolled off the assembly line in 1998, and the three of us who worked on it went on to get real jobs.

The TRS-80 Returns

One day I thought it would be fun to revive the original Searchlight BBS and see if I could hook it up to the internet.

When I pulled my old TRS-80 Model III out of the closet, though, I found it wouldn’t even boot. The old Radio Shack hardware had seen its day. On eBay I was able to locate three other TRS-80s in various states of repair. Using parts from all four, plus a couple of drives from an old PC, I built the “Frankenstein” TRS-80 you see here.

People often wonder how I got an old eight-bit computer, built long before TCP/IP networks were common, to become a telnet host on the internet. The answer is deceptively simple. The BBS was designed to communicate with a modem through a serial port; now it communicates with a piece of software on a Windows PC that “emulates” a modem using telnet. Only a couple of minor changes to the BBS software were required to get it to work.

For more information, contact me at frank@franklarosa.com. I don't keep the TRS-80 online continuously but if you'd like to try it, let me know and I'll set it up.

Cool Stuff

More photos from the 1995 ONE BBSCON.

Photos from the 2004 Vintage Computer Festival in Mountain View, CA - Includes pictures of the TRS-80 in action.

Text Files recovered from old floppy disks give you a glimpse into the world of the 1980's BBS.

Source Code from 1987 shows how the BBS actually worked.

Famous Public Service Announcement written by my friend Cliff shortly after the PC version of Searchlight first came online. Let's put Frank in the Cool Club!

Get Jason Scott's BBS: The Documentary at Amazon.com. Three DVDs full of interviews with the pioneers of BBSing — including me.

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