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How Minitel put France online 40 years ago (and a glimpse into Threads)

Presented by João Tomé, John Graham-Cumming
Originally aired on 

Welcome to our weekly review of stories from our blog and other sources, covering a range of topics from product announcements, tools and features to disruptions on the Internet. João Tomé is joined by our CTO, John Graham-Cumming.

In this week's program, we don't have any blog posts to go over. Instead, we start by discussing “Threads”, the new Twitter alternative from Instagram/Meta. That said, we mostly take the opportunity to pay homage to a piece of Internet history: Minitel.

Before the World Wide Web transformed the Internet into a medium for the masses in the 1990s, Minitel pioneered as a French computer network. In the 1980s, it provided millions of users in France with access to a range of services, including email, online purchases (ecommerce), including train reservations, general search, game playing, chat, and even a form of online porn.

It was 43 years ago, on July 15, 1980, that Minitel was first experimentally rolled out, in Saint-Malo, France. It gained widespread adoption in 1983, 40 years ago, when the French government distributed free terminals to every French telephone subscriber. Minitel was discontinued only on June 20, 2012, which upset some people in France, including farmers (we explain why). It was considered a cultural phenomenon and had an impact beyond France, reaching other countries.

John Graham-Cumming has a few old Minitel devices to show and some stories to share. And last but not least, we pivot from Minitel to the newest Indiana Jones movie. The first Indy movie was released on June 12, 1981, when the Minitel project was just getting started.

MIT’s Minitel dedicated site:


Transcript (Beta)

Hello and welcome to This Week in Net, everyone. It's the July 7th, 2023 edition. And because it's the summer in the northern atmosphere, at least, we don't have blog posts this week in our blog, but we're going to dedicate this session to a bit of Internet history.

So we're going to talk about the pre-World Wide Web and a tool, in a sense, that is called Minitel.

It was launched in France in 1980. I'm João Tomé, based in Lisbon.

And with me, I have, as usual, our CTO, John Graham -Cumming.

Hello, John. How are you? I'm good. Thank you. I'm good, too. Before we go to Minitel, that has a lot of history, let's talk about one of the launches.

So from old technology to new technology, in a sense, in this case, social media technology.

Meta just launched this week Treads, a Twitter competitor. It's pretty much similar to Twitter.

And in the first day, it was yesterday, Thursday, it was launched.

It already got like 50 million users, apparently. It's a lot. But there's a new social media to be an alternative to Twitter around, right?

Yay. Exactly. It's difficult to be excited.

That's true. I mean, obviously, 50 million people are excited about it.

So I mean, there are people excited about it. I deleted my Twitter account a few months ago now, after I think I was on Twitter for 13 years or something like that.

And then I just decided I'd had enough of social media.

So I dabbled in Mastodon for a very short period of time. And then I was like, oh, I guess I don't really care about this.

And then Threads. I've been slowly weaning myself off of social media for a while.

There's advantages there.

Some of those have been repeatedly explained recently, with Twitter also having a rate limit this week, regarding trying to avoid scraping, apparently, maybe related to Threads launch or not.

So there's been movement around in social media, which is not the case for a few years now.

But I was safe from the Threads launch, right?

Because it didn't launch in Europe. That's true. That's completely true.

It was the only large market where it didn't launch. More than 100 countries, no European country is included.

And this is apparently, they want to have more safeguards to the new legislation that will be around next year, I think, the Digital Markets Act.

So they're being a little bit more on the safe side before they launch this in Europe.

Hey, but you're not safe from it because you have a US phone or some nonsense, right?

Exactly. Yeah, I have a US phone, at least.

It's a burner phone, really, but it allows you to explore things from the App Store in the US or UK, because it's also available in the UK.

And I was trying out yesterday and really surprised how the feel feels like Twitter.

I would say Twitter from last six years.

So it's not the current Twitter. It doesn't have space.

It doesn't have a lot of things, even search. You cannot search for words right now.

But apparently, they're trying to include more and more stuff.

But they're going with the more raw version of Twitter from the early days, which is interesting.

And I was surprised how many people are there already in one day.

And you'll find most of a lot of accounts on Twitter, but they're not focusing on politicians.

For example, Joe Biden is not there. So they're focused on the Instagram crowd, like influencers, performers, but all of the others seem to be also trying to go there, too.

All right. Well, it sounds like you know more about this than I do, because I do have an Instagram account, but it's private, follows almost nobody, and I don't really post on it.

So there you go. It's interesting to see the changes in this area, to be honest.

And apparently, people really wanted a Twitter alternative.

There's Blue Sky that is limited right now, but is a Twitter alternative.

Post News, there's a bunch of... Macedon, of course, you already spoke about that.

There's a bunch of alternatives. And this is another one.

But the difference is, because it's connected with Instagram, they automatically have a bunch of users coming from Instagram.

Presumably, you can just use your existing Instagram account.

And apparently, they're trying to now beat OpenAI when they launched ChatGPT, because they were the first service reaching 100 million users in a few days.

And now they're trying to beat that record, although they are connected to Instagram.

So it's a little bit a different record, I would say.

So the one thing maybe here, this is humans fighting back against the AI.

If the AI was winning the most users battle, maybe Zuckerberg has said, look, we're going to demonstrate that humans still have an edge here.

An edge here. Yeah, maybe so.

So let's start with Minitel. First, a few trivias. It rolled out experimentally on July the 15th, 1980.

So 43 years ago, almost 43 years ago, it was launched in 1982.

And then it was discontinued only on the 30th of June, 2012.

So 11 years ago. So there's a bunch of dates around this period related to Minitel.

That's why I wanted to bring it up. For those who don't know, what is Minitel?

Look, I'll show you. I've got one right here. Oh, you should disconnect your background.

Oh, let me disconnect my background. And then you're going to see. Press this right button.

You see this? There you go. This is a Minitel, this thing.

It seems like an old TV. It looks like an old TV. And it's got a keyboard that pops out the front.

And on the back of it, it's got two things. One of them is a connection to your phone line, which you can kind of see here.

And another one is this little port here, which allows you to connect it to a peripheral.

It's an RS-232 port.

So what is this thing? And this one was about 40 years old. What is this thing?

It's a computer with a screen that was designed to work with a service offered by the French telecommunications folks, France Telecom.

And very, very slowly, it's a 1200 board modem inside it.

But the idea was you could access services online.

And the reason the French did this was that in the 1970s, France identified online interactions as a threat in the sense that they believed that, in particular, IBM was likely to dominate a world where people were using computers to access online information.

And they didn't want this to happen. Now, it's quite forward-thinking because if you think about that period, very few people had access to online things.

There weren't that many online services. There were BBSs and stuff like that.

But it was really in the beginning of the 70s when they started thinking about it, it's very forward -looking.

And so what they did was they said, we're going to create a service.

And the service consists of two things. One is the device I just showed you, which is a Minitel.

That's a Minitel 1B, which is the second model that was made.

The reason I have that one is that one has that extra socket on the back, which you can connect it to a peripheral.

The things you could connect to are quite interesting.

You connect it to a printer. You could also connect it to a smart card reader.

Because bear in mind, this is 1980. People could use smart cards.

So the French had built this whole world for themselves. So they built that device.

And what they did was they gave it to people. They gave millions of them away to get the service booted up.

And the service they really started with was looking up people's phone numbers.

You could go online. You could type in. You could find someone's phone number.

But they also built the back end, built on a piece of technology called X25, which was a networking technology.

And they built a way in which you could run a service on this network.

And what was interesting about it, because they built this whole integrated thing, the services that were available on Minitel were the network actually assured the reliability of everything.

But it also included billing. And billing went to your phone bill. So that meant if you were coming online, you had a billing mechanism already built in.

And it very, very quickly became popular.

You could make train reservations. You could look at the telephone directory.

There was mailboxes. There was chat. All these kind of things happened.

And all this was chargeable to your phone bill. And I think that Minitel is often seen as like this sort of alternative Internet.

And people don't quite understand the details of it.

I think the really interesting thing is that they built, it's often seen as a government project, which it was.

But it was not a closed system. In fact, people could start services and run them on this thing.

There were thousands and thousands of these services. And if you were in France, while Minitel was active, you would see ads for these services on the underground, often starting 3615, which was the phone number you dialed.

The 3615 and then the name of some service. And so tons of stuff was online.

Very famously, when Jacques Chirac became president, the TV showed his image slowly appearing in very blocky graphics on the screen to show that he was the one who was elected, because it was very slow, 1200 bits per second.

It was a huge success, a huge success.

And the reason it survived until 2012 is that people were still using it, even though the Internet was very well established.

Because for some specific services, it was very, very efficient.

So people were used to, particularly in industry, using Minitel, for example, for ordering things.

So I remember reading about parts ordering for cars in garages.

So when the garage wants to order from their supplier, a lot of that was on Minitel, because the service was really, really well developed.

And I think what's interesting about that is, obviously, it's very slow, blocky graphics, just text on the screen.

But I think that the fact that people optimized for that interface and made it work well, made it really popular.

The other thing that happened was there was a section which was called Minitel Rose, which was pink messages, if you like, pink Minitel, which was all around chat, some of it pornographic, some of it looking for love online, dating kind of stuff, and became a huge, huge business.

And what I think is really weird about this was that many of those services were actually run by newspapers in France, who themselves were relatively conservative in what they were printing.

But they were running on the backside, this secret, slightly pornographic Minitel service.

And it was a huge, huge success. And you can still find Minitel.

I'm not sure I should admit how many I have. Let's say I have more than one Minitel.

And the reason I have this Minitel 1B is because of that port on the back, you can make a pretty simple cable, actually, and plug that and make it into a terminal.

And I use it sometimes as a terminal for Linux. And I have another Minitel, Minitel 2.

The 1B is a pretty old one. And then the 2 is the one which I modified.

So that's the 1B I just showed you, using it as a serial terminal. So I explained here how to...

And many people did this. And at the time when Minitel was popular, this was a super popular thing to do, was to turn it into a terminal.

And then, yeah, I went a bit deep on this blog post because I was curious about the interface, but it was...

A lot of details. A bit too much detail. It's not very complicated.

You can find online how to make it a connector. I made the connector. It entirely fits in the connector and you can use it.

Actually, there's another one, Minitel 2 in this case.

Well, MAME, right? The platform for doing online game emulation, they actually can emulate the Minitel 2, which is kind of helpful because if you want to fiddle around, write your own firmware, which I know that at least three of us want to do in the entire world, you can actually find the firmware and run it in MAME.

And I just wrote a blog post about how to do that. You already explained some use cases.

You use it right now. Of course, it's not connected as it was intended inside one Internet, let's call it like that.

From the X25 network, yeah.

Exactly. But it's still usable. And I found that there's a market on eBay, on sites like that, where you can buy and people buy.

So they're still around, right?

They're still around because you think the French gave away millions of these things.

And so they're still around. And I actually have one. There's a number here from 1988.

It reached like 3 million, I think. Yeah. I mean, it was tremendously popular.

I actually have one, which is in its original packaging.

I can't show it to you right now. I have a Minitel 1, which somebody kept in their attic.

And it's not quite mint in box, but it's pretty strange to look at it because it's a piece of technology from the 1980s, still with its original packaging.

Actually, in 1996, it was developed by 10,000 companies. Almost 26,000 different services were available.

Yeah. I mean, it was tremendously widely used.

Yeah. That's big. Another thing I think could be interesting here is the implications that it had even before.

You already state this a bit because I read an article.

Maybe I can share it here. It was related to when Minitel was discontinued. There were some protests in France.

Okay, but that is France, right? Small, but some protests.

And why? Apparently, farmers were using it in 2012 to communicate. In remote areas in France, it was easier to communicate.

Yeah. And it was well understood.

And it's quite robust. I mean, obviously, you drop it on the floor. It does have a CRT in it, so you could break it.

But I mean, as a piece of equipment, yeah, definitely something people used for a long time.

And yeah, I guess France Telecom kept it going as long as they could.

And actually, the story you mentioned, there's some correlation.

Of course, it was the Internet of France before there was an Internet, in a sense.

But of course, when there's Internet, all of the things that humans usually do, like sex things and things like that, come up.

And there's this story that was recent in 2012 that a veteran male French pop musician admitted to a French newspaper that it was, in a previous life, an animatrice or hostess in one of the first Minitel sex lines.

There was a sex line there on Minitel in the 80s.

There you go. Another thing that could be interesting to talk about is the scale in different countries than France.

Although it was a French service, because of the way it was done, it could be used elsewhere, right?

If you do some tricks.

Oh, sure. I mean, X25 was a standard. I mean, France Telecom published all the details about how the thing worked.

And so, there were sort of related services.

There was a thing called Videotex at the time, which was like related kind of services.

And I think the thing is that big difference is that the French gave these machines away, and other countries didn't.

And they bootstrapped it by doing that.

And that made a huge difference. And everyone knew what Minitel was, because it was like, well, you had one in your house.

And a lot of those Videotex you mentioned were adapted in different countries, even in Spain.

Even in Portugal, Celso was mentioning the other day that he used Minitel back in a day in Portugal.

Because X25 was not limited to France, if you got onto an X25 network, then you could use it.

Yes, certainly. No, it's all dial-up, right? I mean, this one actually has a French, if you can see this cable, because I never use this part.

But see if you can see this.

Does that appear? You can see this thing? It appears. Yeah, we can see it. This weird thing is a French.

This is what a French telephone plug used to look like. It's kind of very robust.

You used it in the 80s too, right? In the UK. How was it in the UK in the 80s?

You mean in terms of like this kind of thing? Like Minitel? Exactly.

Yeah. There was a thing called Prestel, which was sort of a combination of your TV and the phone system, but it never really got very many subscribers.

I think part of the problem was, I mean, the French, the fact that they gave you this box and it just worked on your phone line, the billing worked, you plugged it in, you didn't have to do anything.

That was pretty magical, right? You didn't have to think about it.

Whereas Prestel, you had to go and buy this thing and there was a service you had to scribe to.

All these things held it back. It was very famous, Prestel, in the UK because the Queen and Prince Philip had email addresses on Prestel.

Somebody hacked Prince Philip's, I believe it was Prince Philip's email on Prestel.

That was a height of excitement. I don't remember whether it was just a really bad password or something like that, but I don't think Prince Philip had a lot of email on Prestel either, given how few people there were using it.

It was the abbreviation for a press telephone.

It was. It was similar kind of thing to Minitel, but just it never developed.

I think the French did a really good job of packaging up, both giving the devices away and also the backend service, which meant you could be like, small company, like I'm going to create a Minitel service.

You're going to be able to get whatever it is you want through this device.

I can get paid for it if I'm a service provider.

In the US, there's also a story related to this type of service.

It was mostly CompuServe, right? The most known. Well, probably AOL. I mean, yeah, they kind of did these kinds of things, but I think- But the Schwartz lived, apparently.

It was slightly different, right? I mean, I think if you think about AOL, think about CompuServe, it was like this service had been around for a really long time, like getting access to compute resources.

It was slightly more of a closed up system than, funnily enough, because you think about Minitel as a government thing, you don't think of it as open, but in fact, it was quite open in terms of what you could put on it.

I found the article about the farmers, more than that, the French proto -Internet.

And this is an Australian website.

Apparently, it was installed in 9 million homes.

Yeah. So it's heartbreaking. It was said back in 2012.

Yeah, they're saying it's simple and easy to use. There's also a book, a related book, right?

Related to Minitel. There's quite a lot. The book by the folks at MIT is really good.

I have this site, There are some folks in the US who are really fascinated by Minitel and the history of it.

And the book that talks about the history of it in English is really, really, really good, worth reading if you want to understand the history of it and why the French thought this was a national priority, was to give everybody a computer, essentially.

Of course, they couldn't program it, as the firmware is fixed on it.

Well, mostly fixed.

You can actually reflash the firmware if you want. To me, it's really interesting that in the US, MIT, and these are researchers from the MIT, wrote a book about something from France.

This is in their platform studies group of books. They're looking at the different platforms around the world that developed.

Minitel is one of them.

It's a great analysis of it. Definitely worth reading if you want to understand it.

Beyond the simple, France didn't invent the Internet. They developed this weird other thing.

Because in fact, of course, the French were heavily involved in packet switching.

They understood a lot about what was happening, and they did it this way.

It was a different vision. Then, of course, the Internet with its openness.

The thing about the Internet is it doesn't have built-in payments.

We had to pull all this stuff on top, whereas Minitel was like, yeah, well, payments are already built in.

It's interesting to look at it as what was good about it, and what was not missing in the Internet, and how these things developed in different ways.

Exactly. There's one thing I think is worth mentioning, which is I was seeing the other day some news articles about the Internet in the 90s, and hey, it won't last.

People won't use it for long. It's a fad.

It's new. It's a fad, yeah. To me, it's quite interesting to see that in the mid-90s, it was not like clear-cut that the Internet would be a worldwide success.

It would change everything.

Now we're seeing AI possibly can change. Even looking at this Minitel example, it was really important in France in the time giving so many tools, even when the tools were rudimentary, not very good.

It's quite amazing.

But they unlocked something, which is the ability to do it yourself.

If you could go online and buy a train ticket in France, that was something you couldn't do, and suddenly you could just do it at home.

I think we're all now used to that.

You have to remember there was a time when you went to the railway station to buy the ticket, or the one I always find amusing is, how do you know what's on at the cinema?

Well, what you used to do is either look in the newspaper or call a number and listen to somebody read out every film and all the times figuring this kind of stuff out.

We forget how easy it is to have access to all this. To be honest, I'm a very avid user, avid watcher of Seinfeld, the TV show.

There's an episode where Kramer is doing the voice announcement for the movies, like announcing at this time.

Seinfeld is a really good example for those who are very young and don't know what it was like in the 90s, of checking the technology of the 90s, the machine recordings, voice recordings, things like that.

You will get a sense of how it was like back in the 90s, funny enough.

This website that I'm showing, it's French,, is something as a memory of articles related to Minitel.

There's a lot of information online about how it operated, in part because this was done by the French state and they published a lot of documentation about it.

You can find out the schematics, how they operated, quite a lot of detail. It's one of those interesting things in terms of the history of the Internet.

There's a lot of different histories of the Internet.

That's one of the things I'm most surprised about.

The first time someone did something on the Internet, no, apparently, it was already around a few aspects or in a few countries.

The experiences were already being had, in some cases.

If you think about it, there was an enormous amount of work being done to think about how to connect computers together, the Internet being one example, ARPANET being one example.

People were thinking about connections between all these things.

It's no surprise that different things developed at different times.

Yeah, that's Minitel.

I have another Minitel, which is the Minitel 2, which there's a small group of people who like to hack Minitels.

I replaced the firmware in the Minitel.

You can do that. Depending on the Minitel, it's either on an EEPROM or it's not.

It's Intel 8031, and so you can write new code for it. You see occasionally, especially demo scene type stuff, like what can you do on a Minitel if you change the firmware?

You can have fun with that. I have a Minitel 2, which I modified the firmware on completely so I can run my own system on it.

This is your Minitel 2, right?

Yes, it's a warranty. This is a Minitel 2 that's right there that's running alternative firmware, which is using graphics.

Actually, it's fascinating what it does.

The Minitel does not have graphics capability. It has character generation.

Actually, if you look at this diagram, it always says video on the right there.

That chip is a character generator, but it's programmable.

The firmware above in that video is actually reprogramming the character generator to generate little characters that are parts of a piece of graphic and then putting those characters on screen and getting what looks like graphics out of it.

And this is just me detailing how I hacked the Minitel using this chap.

And there's this small demo. Yes, so he made this demo. This is all done by reprogramming the character generator to make it look like it's capable of doing graphics.

None of this would have been seen in the 80s on a Minitel.

It was completely wild. I modified mine. Now, mine was slightly different because his Minitel, the firmware was in an EEPROM.

The EEPROMs they use here, they have to what's called latch the memory addresses because of how things work.

And it turns out that this particular EEPROM is used in hacking cars. So it turns out that the electronics that manages engines in cars often seems to use this 87C257 EEPROM.

And there's a whole little world of people, like if you want to hack the performance of your car, they hack these EEPROMs so you can find them.

And there it is.

There's a blank EEPROM right there. And I'm using this thing called Dataman S4, which is an EEPROM programmer that I've had for a while.

And there it is in place.

There's my EEPROM in place in my Minitel. And that's what the firmware looks like when you run it.

Yeah, it's kind of amazing. There's a new Indiana Jones in town.

And this reminds me that in this movie, there's some traveling through time to older times.

So you would be one of those good people to go there and to create from the scratch new tools and things.

Definitely. I don't know. I think I'd be useless at the Siege of Syracuse with Archimedes.

I think you watched it.

I have seen it. I have seen it. Yes. Yeah. That's something only someone that watched Indiana Jones would know.

Did you like it, by the way? Not really, actually.

I thought it was... I mean, I like original Indiana Jones movies.

I just thought it was a bit boring, I guess. It just seemed like someone had said, what are the things that need to be in an Indiana Jones movie?

Okay, well, that's how it comes together, so.

In general speaking, I was excited of watching it.

And there's that, a bit of Indiana Jones at the end. Actually, Indiana Jones was launched at the time Minitel was launched, like in the early 80s.

So there you go. All right. That's a wrap. And I'm taking a vacation for two weeks, so we'll see you in three weeks time.

And that's a wrap. I will see you in three weeks time.


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