The car is bust! Well, it’s working but threatening to cease to do so. It is booked into a Citroen garage for expensive work tomorrow morning. At the garage on Friday, a woman took a code number off the windscreen, entered it into a website, and found the exact details of our car, telling us it was registered on 14th July 2008. It seemed extraordinary that anyone would maintain such a database. It’s a far cry from Minitel.
Who now remembers Minitel? 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.
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.
Minitel ended in 2012. For half of its thirty year lifetime of Minitel, we had email in our house. In February 1997, our email address was 106522.740 at compuserve dot com . It’s hard now 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 changed and we forgot 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, but France has rapidly changed. Checking my phone for an SMS message at lunchtime, the man at the restaurant said, “Sir, we have free Wifi if you need to use it.” Clearly, he regarded SMS as now obsolete.
Perhaps in another thirty years, the car will contact the garage itself and carry out the necessary repairs.