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A Brief History of the Illuminati BBS

Illuminati Online hit the Internet in 1993. But its roots go back to the dawn of Austin BBSing. It was originally the Illuminati BBS, a customer-support board for Steve Jackson Games.

The Illuminati BBS officially went online on April 1, 1986. It ran on T-Net software (written in BASIC) on an Apple ][+, with a screaming 300-baud modem. Our first hardware upgrade was a lower-case chip for the Apple .  .

The sysop was Fearless Leader. The actual identity of Fearless Leader was officially a secret. It wasn't Steve. Who was it? Good question.

The board's original purpose was game playtesting, discussion, and customer support. But soon it was clear that the Illuminati's online community was interested in much more than just games. Over the next few years, the user base grew to more than 1,000 – most of them paying long-distance rates to call – to discuss everything related to science fiction, fantasy, comics, gaming and general High Weirdness.

As the years went by and the Illuminati community grew, we upgraded both software and hardware. Our first changeover was to Joe-Net, a homebrew system written by local programmer Joe DiMaggio. Joe-Net was easy to use, full of features, and ran on a MS-DOS system, giving us a lot more speed. We loved it. But eventually, Joe didn't have the time to maintain the system. (He'd written it for fun, and in the history of the world as we know it there have only been three Joe-Net systems. Too bad. Best software we ever had.)

Fun with the Secret Service . . . Not!

Late in 1989, we switched to WWIV, a popular commercial software package which promised the capability to link to other BBSs nationwide. But that was not to be .  . On March 1, 1990, the SJ Games offices were raided by the Secret Service, in a now-famous "hacker hunt." They took the Illuminati computer (among other things) and loads of software, including our WWIV disks.

The old Apple ][+ and T-Net were dragged out of the closet and pressed into service as an "answering machine" to tell callers what had happened – or as much as we knew. But Illuminati was down, and stayed down for a month.

We're Baaaaaaaaa-aaaack!

When we came back up, it was as a two-line system, on new hardware (some of it donated by our supporters). We were now running MCD-2, a locally written multiline package. We continued to use MCD-2 until 1993.

The system continued to grow, now with a strong added interest in civil liberties of computer users. When the search warrant was finally unsealed, it showed that the original raid had been a groundless fishing expedition, based on ignorance.

In 1992 we switched to an Amiga, running a multiline package called DLG. This gave us a lot more capabilities, but still wasn't enough .  . which was why we decided to go to the Internet and create this system.

Victory In Court

With the help of the newly-formed Electronic Frontier Foundation, SJ Games and several users filed suit and won substantial awards. In early 1993, a federal judge ruled that the Secret Service had to pay for the mail it had taken and read, the equipment it had damaged, and other harm to SJ Games.

And Now, The Internet

In August of 1993, the system added more than a dozen direct-dial lines and a T1 connection to the Internet, allowing for hundreds of simultaneous calls. Many new services were also added, including full Internet access for local callers and a vastly expanded conferencing system.

As of October 1998, the Illuminati Online service had more than 7,000 paying customers, connecting through 360 incoming dial-up lines in Austin, and a separate 48-line POP in Houston. We had a total of 48MB of bandwidth right out of the office, which at the time was a lot of network throughput for a company that primarily made tabletop games. So Illuminati Online was spun off as a separate company with its own offices on south IH-35 in Austin.

In February 2001, the ISP was reorganized as the IOCOM Corporation and focused primarily on providing Internet services. In July of that year IOCOM moved to new offices in North Austin and relocated equipment to a communication company property. That ended up not working out, because the company providing the space decided to get out of the Internet business. To avoid further unexpected interruptions, in October IOCOM leased offices and a dedicated datacenter in downtown Austin, right across the street from the Omni hotel. Having a technician available to answer the phone 24 hours a day was a step up from having to publish the main admin's home phone number on the website.

Over the years, technology changed and services all over the country expanded. Fewer and fewer people needed dial-up connections as broadband technology became more available. A lot of the businesses in Austin that used IO services had enough equipment to be ISPs in their own right. Consolidation was inevitable, and so in July 2004 Prismnet Ltd. bought the IOCOM assets and domain name. The shell hosts, web servers and other related systems continue to operate today. However, the io.com domain name finally went away in June 2011, purchased by a hosting company with a similar name.

Did you know . . .

  • Some confused conspiracy theorists thought that Illuminati Online was the actual Internet presence of the secret society.
  • The IO servers were generally named for aspects of the Illuminati fiction as written by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. Two of the servers, 'fnord' and 'eris,' are still in operation (on different hardware, of course) at SJ Games.
  • Illuminati Online had customers all over the world. Bill Ray, of The Register in the United Kingdom, wrote about the retirement of the io.com domain.

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