Tech “Archaeology”; Minitel and Inception of a deeper speculative project

Minitel: German Telenorma/Siemens circa 1987.

The use of Minitel as a predecessor to the Internet was piloted in 1978 and rolled out in 1982 in France. President Valerie Giscard d’Estaing was inspired to initiate the project. One has to admire the French with their amazing ability to deliver large projects e.g. Ariane rocket, the Pompidou Centre and the TGV, this visionary network connected Devices anticipated the forthcoming Internet. Its original proposal was to replace paper-based directories for phone numbers it was soon being used interactively to order Cinema tickets email and chat. Other services on offer were mail-order retail, airline and train tickets information on another database and message boards. Even before the advent of Minitel, Parisians could order local grocery deliveries via a service called Peapod.The operation of Minitel was as follows the user would a dial local gateway using a telephone handset on the call would be carried over the public switch telephone network and answered by software running at the other end hearing and audio ball turn the user placed a handset back on its cradle and began using the Minitel terminal.

Other examples of predecessors to the Internet

In the early 80s hobbyists ran bulletin boards, using dial-up modems over the phone line. This was another example of the archetypal form of an Internet. IBM PCs and CPM machines were capable of running FidoNet. FidoNet enabled users to transfer messages across machines when each connection had been made. An outstanding example of this was a bulletin board system called The Well which was run from San Francisco, inspired by the whole earth catalogue forming an outstanding virtual community. Starting as a bulletin board system it soon became its own ISP and establishes itself in the early days of the Internet.

In the UK Prestel was launched as a means of obtaining information however, like Minitel running at 1200/75 baud, it was extremely slow and required cumbersome equipment for to work. Videotex was also delivered via the BBC and ITV as another videotext service but this was not of course not interactive.

The Minitel display was a Videotex character-based display later Minitel terminals featured extra features such as chip card readers high resolution colour displays and built-in memory functions most retail terminals featured a serial port with multiple display modes enabling users to connect the terminal to printer or credit card reader or PC. And long before the Internet of things Minitel was incorporated into Home automation allowing Remote control of lights security alarms Central heating etc. Ulla 3615 was one of many Minitel tales sex chat rooms and carried poster ads sites to advertise its services. Human beings were employed to act as ‘digital chat actors’ to entice impressionable man to stay on line and pay the one euro per minute charges. People at work use their many tailed terminals to sneak off and use these messagerie services during the day.

In 1984 Minitel engineers introduced a new feature which enabled the last page visited to be saved and this was heavily criticised as a Big Brother feature, thousands of many tail terminals were returned to PTT and the feature was cancelled soon after.

Another use of Minitel the Minitel Rose (pink Minitel) – a meet up forum for people today to date with each other; another of its examples of future use via the Internet i.e. Tender and Grindr. The lascivious conversations that took place on Minitel rose were heavily criticised as it was feared that children would equally be able to access them.

poster ad for Ulla service on Minitel network c.1995

Tamara Chaplin in her paper: Lesbians Online Queer Identity and Community Formation on the French Minitel quote:

“It  also  made possible unique ways of being “out of the closet” in a virtual space that was at once private (experienced in the intimacy of home or office) and public (accessible to others and premised on representation and communication).

Mega Anchovy Bulletin Board

During the years 1984 to 1986 I ran a bulletin board run using a 1200/75 baud Demon modem and the BBC model B micro with twin double-sided floppy disk drives. I had a dedicated spare phoneline in the room next door to my bedroom and I would wake up in the middle of the night to hear the clacking of the disk drives as users logged in and out Reading and leaving messages and downloading and uploading files. All traces of this arrangement of machines and software have now long gone. I paid a visit yesterday to the British Library Newsroom section, pouring over Microfiches of the Sunday Observer. The bizarre combination of a PC to control rolls of celluloid under glass – old tech vs new tech was amusing enough, looking round at the retired journalists, wistfully pouring over their scribbles of decades ago. Eventually the surly librarian revealed the fact that the Sunday Supplements were bound and resided in Yorkshire. I gratefully registered even more details into the BL computer and accepted that they would not be in until next Saturday. The article I was looking for was a single page on my bulletin board Mega-Anchovy. A journalist had logged in and asked permission to write a story on it. I lost the original paper long ago. Pre-1995 newspapers are not searchable online, I will have to look through 52 copies of the archive to find it; I hope I have the correct year!

The bulletin board proved reasonably popular I featured a section offering a service where I would post a cassette tape containing a program (somewhat of dubious origin) in exchange for 1 GBP coin posted to my home address. I would also swap cassettes as well in the same way. The bulletin board had sections with lascivious files. Many messages uploaded passwords and instructions for what is commonly known nowadays as “pen testing or penetrating testing”. Another amusing feature of the bulletin board was to be able to chat in real time to anyone logged in.

 

German Minitel

In Germany the BTX system (Minitel equivalent) was priced differently and instead of being distributed free of charge together with phone directory information. However, users paid up to one euro per minute to France Telecom accessing other services.

In Germany the popularity of Minitel was undermined by the requirement to buy expensive decoders for the terminal to work. The German Postal Service had a monopoly on the decoders. This monopoly was abolished but by that time the Internet had already begun to take off. My Telenorma Siemens terminal is a rare example of a German Minitel.

By 1986 Minitel in France had 1.4 million terminals established in French households. The news of the 1984 Olympics was published as part of the Minitel News network to its subscribers. By the end of the 90s, it was estimated that over 25 million people were using Minitel many of which were connecting via personal computers. Over 26,000 different services were available and ten thousand companies what involved with Minitel.

In the late 90s and early to thousands the Internet had soon superseded the Minitel network and 30 years later it was finally disbanded in 2012.

The Project:

I have obtained two Minitel terminals, one of which is password protected the other is on its way to me and I am uncertain as to its working condition. I have identified they pass word program resides in an EPROM made by Fujitsu …

and I have also sourced and EPROM reader (TL86) in order to download the hexadecimal code and subsequently backward engineer the C programming inside the EPROM. I will be using and Ida decompiler to locate the Minitel password. I will then be connecting with the Minitel to a Raspberry Pi, which in turn will obtain feeds from twitter and display them back onto the Minitel.

Perhaps with the expected second Minitel, if it works – I could have the two terminals arguing with each other!

References:

http://bildschirmtext.btx-graphik.rehbein.net/

Tamara Chaplin: Journal of the History of Sexuality, Volume 23, Number 3, September 2014, pp. 451-472 (Article) The French Videotex System

Minitel: A Successful Implementation of a National

Information Technology Infrastructure Author(s): William L. Cats-Baril and  Tawfik Jelassi Source: MIS Quarterly,  Vol. 18, No. 1 (Mar., 1994), pp. 1-20

Project Gutenberg’s Zen and the Art of the Internet, by Brendan P. Kehoe

http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/34/pg34-images.html

http://getintopc.com/softwares/development/hex-rays-ida-pro-7-0-all-decompilers-free-download/

27C322 / 27C160 / 27C800 / 27C400 adapter board for TL866 programmer https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/27C322-27C160-27C800-27C400-adapter-board-for-TL866-programmer/292776026433?ssPageName=STRK%3AMEBIDX%3AIT&_trksid=p2060353.m2749.l2649

https://www.hex-rays.com/products/decompiler/index.shtml

https://www.datasheetarchive.com/pdf/download.php?id=8e808ff600713e649e05eb054c4e96963c71cc&type=M&term=MBM27C1000

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_bulletin_board_systems