The BBC reports that French Minitel system will be switched off on Saturday. Revolutionary in the 1980s, visitors to France probably only encountered France’s forerunner of the Internet at hotel receptions, or in the pictures of busty women pasted on roadside hoardings inviting interested persons to encounter them via a 3615 Minitel number.
Another episode of communications history comes to an end. An icon of technology will be no more. The speed of change seems to increase.
A friend who died in 2004 would have talked of the century of communications history he had seen and would have regarded the end of Minitel as just a further step of progress. Born in 1899, Alan would tell stories from his childhood years at the cable station at Valentia Island, Co Kerry. ‘There were two brothers who worked for the cable company. One was on Valentia and the other was in Heart’s Content, Newfoundland; at night when things were quiet, they would send messages to each other’. It was a story that had a touch of the mythical, but the idea of a cable under the ocean must have seemed mythical in such times, as mythical as Minitel must have seemed in 1982. A system offering visual information to every household via a humble telephone line must have seemed from the realm of science fiction in 1982.
For half the thirty year lifetime of Minitel, we have had email in our house. In February 1997, our email address was 106522.740 at compuserve dot com . It’s hard to imagine life in decades past. Did people write lengthy letters? They hardly phoned each other all the time; phone calls were expensive.
In the lifespan of Minitel, the world has changed and we have forgotten what went before. Anyone who visited in France in the 1980s will recall the payphones – dialling ’19’ for an international line, before dialling the code for the country and the person’s number and standing ready to feed the machine 50 centime and one franc coins when the call was answered.
It was 1995 before we took a mobile phone to France; the memory lingers of standing at a roadside outside of Le Havre on a fine August evening talking to someone in Northern Ireland. There was a sense of being at the cutting edge!
At the forefront of technology in 1982, Minitel was a disincentive to French take up of the Internet, the BBC report says that there are still 600,000 Minitel users, but France has rapidly changed. Driving from Perpignan to Bordeaux in April, every motorway service station had free Wifi; even the campsite on which we stayed was covered by a free WIFi signal.
The end of Minitel marks the end of a bold venture; a democratic venture in taking cutting edge communication into the lives of ordinary people. After Saturday, among other things, there will no longer be an opportunity to contact a lady via 3615; their posters have all disappeared.