Putting Your Retro Computer On the Line
With it being BBS Week over on RetroBattlestations, many people are trying to get their retro computers online so they can connect to a BBS over the Internet. One reason for wanting to connect over the internet is because phone calls cost money, and for others (like me), we don't even have a phone line to use with a modem anymore. Some of the discussion has pointed to some specialized serial to Ethernet or serial to WiFi adapters. Those boxes can be over $300 so I thought I’d put together a quick guide on how to get an older computer “connected to the Internet.” This method will work for computers that have an RS232 port, and will use a Raspberry Pi to act as an intermediary to gate to the Internet and costs a lot less.
Obviously the first thing you’re going to need is a retro computer with an RS232 port. RS232 is pretty much the lowest common denominator in terms of communications standards. Many computers came with some kind of serial port which could do RS232, and most of the rest could get one as an add-on.
Besides the retro computer, other things you will need are:
- Raspberry Pi
- null modem cable
- USB to serial adapter
- Terminal Emulation software for your retro computer
First thing to do is get your Raspberry Pi setup and get it on your network. Plug the USB to serial adapter into your Raspberry Pi, and then use your null modem cable to connect your retro computer to the USB serial adapter. Get into a shell on the Raspberry Pi, and type in:
sudo apt-get install tcpser
Fire up your terminal emulation software on your retro computer and find out what the maximum speed it can handle is. Back on the Raspberry Pi, run this command:
tcpser -s <maxspeed> -d /dev/ttyUSB0
Your Raspberry Pi will now show up as a modem to your retro computer. With a WiFi module on your Raspberry Pi, you can now connect your retro computer wirelessly to the Internet. If you are able to type commands to the modem, enter AT and you should see an OK show up. You can “dial out” to other computers by putting in hostname:port instead of a phone number.
If everything is working, you should soon see yourself connected to my BBS. Since tcpser emulates a modem, you can use any software on your retro computer which expects to communicate over a modem. You can use it to transfer files from newer computers to your old computer, or copy files from old floppies and put them in the cloud. You can call out to other BBSs, or even setup your own BBS and let people connect to your retro computer. One downside to tcpser though is that the version that comes with the Pi doesn't support connecting to a true telnet server, so it won't give you shell access. (See my update below to fix the telnet bug.)
The hardest part of this setup will probably be the null modem cable. Finding a cable that has the right connector to match your retro computer may not be easy. While many manufacturers put on ports that were compatible with RS232 electrically, not too many used a standard connector. I have computers that use a fairly standard DB25, others that use a DIN connector or a mini-DIN connector, some that use a DE9 connector, and at least one that uses a headphone connector! And just because a computer used a DB25 or DE9, that doesn’t mean they used a standard pinout. An old Mac DE9 is not wired the same as the DE9 on a PC. The DE9 on an Atari 850 serial box uses a completely different pinout.
I've fixed the bug with connecting to real telnet servers, incorporated geneb's echo and port changes, and added parity support to tcpser. You can get my updates to tcpser from here.
"On the line." "Online." "On the line." "Online." "On the line." "Online." "On the line."