ONLINE > RECOLLECTION issue 3 > Compunet Cobwebs
Compunet Cobwebs
Forward by Jazzcat

Back in time, long before the age of the internet, mega swapping and even the elite BBS-scene, there was something called Compunet. This was the medium for all those wanting to be part of the online demo culture back in the early eighties. Using your modem, typically at speeds below 1200 baud (with upload speed of an amazing 75 baud) you could use e-mail, chat and gaming services as well as the upload/download arena. Based in the United Kingdom, Compunet provided a custom 1200/75 baud modem (affectionately known as the "brick") which utilised the machine's cartridge port. As well as the usual modem features, the device had a custom ROM which contained the rudiments of the software required to access the service. This software could be updated automatically upon connection to the service.

Demos came out year after year, usually being simple one-file productions or "rips" that stole the latest music and graphics from commercial games. Games creator Jeff Minter and musician Rob Hubbard, along with various members of the demo scene such as Bob and Dokk, had a presence on the network. The activity was quite incredible and created the presence of a Cnet scene, the exclusiveness of which is possibly best compared with the BBS scene versus the Mail Trading/Mega Swapping scene.

This magical realm is something most current day sceners missed. It is however, not forgotten and in the pages of Recollection we take a small journey down the golden lane of yesteryear...

What is it?
by Kernal

Compunet was a nationwide dial-up network service based in the UK. When it first started up way back in 1984 the service was aimed squarely at Commodore 64 users, and required a 'brick' modem which plugged into the C64's cartridge port. Users of the service could upload 'pages' or frames of information and could browse through pages uploaded by other individuals. It was initially Commodore-only as the modem (a V23 type which meant it worked 1200 baud download and 75 baud upload) fitted straight into the Commodore 64's cartridge port (I seem to remember that early ones wouldn't fit properly into the C128's electrically identical port as they fouled something else on the back of the C128). Later it became possible to use Compunet from an Amiga and possibly, if memory serves, even an Atari ST. The low upload rate (75 baud was approximately 7.5 characters a second - broadband, it definitely wasn't) meant that uploading a single, simple page took quite a while and a single page could only hold the same as one C64 screen-full which was 40 characters by 25 lines (not that all 25 lines were available). This was, of course, before the days of unmetered telephone calls so it was all costing money by the second.

The ROM extension in the modem provided an editor which allowed these pages to be created and viewed on or offline. Users ID information was stored in ROM in the modem to give extra security so as to theoretically make it impossible for someone to use your account unless they had access to your modem. But in the real world this wasn't the case, and it was not too long before it was possible to use anyone's account with any modem by using a couple of 'pokes'.

As with most things in life Compunet wasn't free; apart from the cost of the telephone calls there were quarterly 'subscriptions' to put up with. At the time I left Compunet there was a standard quarterly charge of 15ukp. You had to pay extra if you wanted to upload programs to be stored for any length of time, or have a 'banner' for your site.

What really made Compunet take-off in a big way was the ability any user to upload programs for others to see. Demos, music, pictures and all manner of C64 programs spread like wildfire through the system. Many, many famous demos groups and individuals started out by uploading their programs onto the Compunet system, many of whom went on to create some of the best commercial games ever to grace the Commodore 64. A lot went on to higher platforms, such as the Amiga, PC and console systems. A few (including myself) are still coding on the '64 to this day. One novel feature unique to Compunet was the ability to award votes to users programs to show uploaders your appreciation (or lack of it) of their hard work (or lack of it!). The votes were displayed next to the file in question, so users could decide (based on the number of votes) whether a program would be worth half an hours downloading time. "half an hour for a C64 program" I hear you say; well, in those dark ages, the Commodore modems were able to upload at the amazing rate of 75 Baud (I kid you not), but hey, no worries, you could download at 1200 baud so it wasn't all bad news!

Private e-mail, or Mail BoX (MBX) facilities were also available. Users also had access to the real time 'Partyline'. Here you could log-on and chat (via the keyboard) to any number of fellow 'Compunetters' logged on at the same time. You could create private rooms and lock out nosy individuals if you needed to talk privately (usually to bad mouth the people you had just locked out).

Control of the system was via a menu known as the 'duckshoot' (as it scrolled left and right in response to the left/right cursor key), you will see this menu on the bottom of the main Compunet page. If this all sounds a lot like another system you may know of then your right. Compunet was a kind of 'mini Internet' but it was available to users in the UK many years before. When you consider that the Internet has only really taken off in the last 2/3 years, you can imagine how people were wowed by the Compunet system, and over twelve years before the Internet became a household word.

Sadly, mainly due to (allegedly) bad management, Compunet went out of business in the very early 90's with the service going offline in May 1993. Rumours are rife that the system still survives intact in a house somewhere in the London suburbs.

Compunet Trivia:

* The company behind Compunet's full name was Compunet Teleservices Ltd.

* The host server was a DEC-10 at launch, which ran Compunet as a time-slice. ADP provided the mainframe, as well as the local dial-up points, which allowed users all over the country access for the cost of a local telephone call.

* The server imposed a 50,000 UK pounds per month running cost (including the local-rate telephone call facilities).

* Server specifications:

VME bus.
1 x 6820 for disk access.
10 megabytes RAM
4 x 200 megabyte hard disks for storage.
3 x 6810s (5 megabytes RAM each) for communications.
52 simultaneous connections (!).

* The Stafford Beer Viable System Model inspired the design. System Five: the encrypted identity, System Four: user editing, System Three and recursion: the Host side and System Two as user and management accounting.

* The client software was originally intentioned to scroll (as opposed to having frame oriented screens- like Viewdata or teletext). However, this could not be achieved on the Commodore PET due to interrupt clashes with the 300 baud acoustic modem. Multi-User games and the (never publicly released) PC client did feature scrolling, however.

* Richard Bartle's Multi User Dungeons (MUD) was ported to ADP's DEC 10 by implementing a BCPL compiler. It was the world's first commercial multi-user game.

* Nick Green, chairman of Compunet at the time of the service ceasing, commented that BT (who ran the underlying telephone lines) took four times the amount of money from Compunet's users than Compunet did itself.

Demos spread on Compunet - the top 5 mini-survey:

Judges' Think Twice demos and the 1001 Crew Escos (first with no borders) demos are stuck in my mind.

OK, here's my list of favourite Compunet demos. Well, at least they were at the time I sat down to write it. My list would probably change each time you asked me! Not many of the demos below (listed in no particular order) are technically brilliant, and of course, compared to the C64 demos which followed years later, they all look very amateurish and "lame". Compunet was a great (and much missed) pioneer playground of many things, not least the Commodore 64 and the Internet that was to come many years later. It was a great breeding ground for coder who went on to become successful commercial game programmers.

1. Thrust Concert (Stoat & Tim)
I'm sure this was the first demo I saw and thought "I MUST get onto this Compunet thing!" I think it was less than a couple of days later when I ordered my Compunet modem. OK. Looking at it today it's pretty cringe worthy, but at the time, it was fantastic!

2. Circlesque (Stoat & Tim)
I was pretty awestruck by this demo from Stoat & Tim. We've all seen a million mathematical type demos since, and most far far better than this, but once again, it was one of the early pioneer demos, and there was really nothing around at the time that got anywhere near as close to being as good as this.

3. Think Twice (The Judges)
This is a relatively boring demo, other than the fact it was (I think) the first introduction to FLD (Flexible Line Distance) and was one of those demos that was more technically great than visually. Of course soon after, everybody and his uncle started to use FLD in their demos, and why not?! Another reason I remember it was because it was co-coded by White of The Judges, whom I first met (I think is was around 1988) at another Compunet user's house, Goat. I remember walking into a room and there was White, with a soldering iron stuck to a C64 which was still turned on!

4. Nostalgia Trip (Ubik)
One of the first demo-come-playable games on Compunet. Space invaders, rendered completely in Commodore keyboard graphics too!

5. Mighty Bogg (Musician)
Not strictly a demo writer as such, and I'm not picking out any particular track of his, but again I remember hearing his work in the very early days (quite a few years before Rob Hubbard & Co. hit the scene), and it was way better than most of the other stuff out there.

Would say my top 5 were - BTW these are in no particular order. Also these are the first ones I remember so I this list might change as I dust off the recesses of my memory today. :)

5. Bob Stevenson Max Headroom. - remembered that it was probably the first full screen animation id seen on the c64.

4. Another Bob and Doug animating image. - the Sony CD player - again a large animating image.

3. Think Twice 5 - The Judges - I loved this demo mainly because it was the one of the first demos that included my images.

2. Taurus Torus - a demo by Jeff Minter. It was a tiny demo that you entered in numbers and controlled the colours and movements of sprites - It had Jeff Minter's trademark psychedelics all over it. I think it ended up in the game Iridis-Alpha as a POKE unlockable

1. Martin Galway music demo - It wasn't visually impressive but was just packed out with Martin's amazing music - which btw still holds up today I might add.

There was something incredibly exciting about those days, We have to remember that is was around a decade before the internet actually took off. I wasn't ever an official Compunet user, A good friend of mine Dazz used to upload my stuff. And I ended up having a slot for my work on their. Getting feedback from people really pushed me onto doing more and more artwork.

I always liked Metal Bar 1 & 2. Most of the 1001 crew demos were interesting. As I was on Compunet from 85 to 87 I can only speak of demos from around that time. I sold my C64 in 1988. I bought another one in 1997. The Compunet was really good fun to connect to and I loved the network.

ok first off let me say I wasn't a big demo collector per se. The 13 demo disks I have are mainly loaded with music rather than demos. Demos I kept tended to have to be somewhat interactive and generally speaking have new or large amounts of music in examples:

Galway demo 1&2 (compilations of many Martin Galway pieces)

Early Rob Hubbard demos (Thing, Monty etc)

Many pieces of pre commercial Matt Gray music (Racey, Sanxion Remix, Comet Remix etc)

Kinetic Adverts (the demo advert Bob and Doug did for Activision)

Thrust Concert

Mighty Bogg music demos (it was these and Bob Stevenson's artwork that first bought Cnet to my attention in late '85)

of our own (Mean Team) Cnet stuff I would include:

Sid & Vics First

Bouncy Thingz (because it was very pretty and had lots of music)

It's War (because it was semi interactive and felt quite nice)

Gallery (because it was all about me! :P )

Cnet was a fantastic couple of years that no-one with any other machine at the time can truly appreciate. There were no scenes like it on any other machine and it did without doubt advance the programming techniques on the C64 of the "average" programmer. Generally speaking it created a large influx of coders into the C64 games industry with skills far in excess of the comparable new coders on any other format.

In no particular order...

The Equalizer Demo
Something different for the time, an attempt at recreating the titles from the TV show The Equalizer. Nicely done.

10 Minute Trap
Great War of the Worlds music remake (Ben Daglish) with a demo (Code by Ratt/Tony Crowther) that followed the music. A fairly big influence (along with Thrust Concert) on our Sid & Vic's 1st demo.

Metal Bar II
I think I just love this one because of the music. The graphics are great too but it's basically a "bog standard" demo (not that we weren't guilty of that). Demon's Electrosound tune sounded different to pretty much everything else "leccysound" at the time and it's still one of my favourites today.

The Bogg Album 2
I think I got this just before getting onto Compunet. Loved the fact that there were people (like Bogg) doing so much original music, creating a whole disk of it and using samples from things like Monty Python to tell you which one you've chosen to listen to :)

Digital Acid
This really made me laugh at the time. I seem to remember A&D saying it was basically a massive bug in some sprite code that inspired them to turn it into this demo. Not my "thing" as far as the subject/music bet definitely of it's time and almost impossible to switch off :)

Memories of Compunet
Compunet for me was a way to showcase our demos which led to meeting a lot of new people, competing with them on the demo front then laughing about it all on Partyline (online chat). Spending ludicrous (for the time) amounts of money on phone bills, especially uploading on the 1200/75 modem only to have the upload fail and have to dial into somewhere else across the other side of the country to try again.