How France fell out of love with Minitel

It was France's first glimpse of an online future. But now, 30 years after it was invented, the wired experiment that foreshadowed the World Wide Web is about to lose its connection once and for all.

Thirty years ago, France led the world into the 21st century, but the world hardly noticed. In 1981-82, two French inventions offered a glimpse of the future. One was the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) or high-speed train. The other was the Minitel. The what?

Long before the coming of the World Wide Web, the Minitel provided a sort of internet-in-one-country. Long before Facebook, Google or Twitter – millions of French people went "online" daily to search for information, to book their holidays, chat to strangers or seek cheap (or not so cheap) sexual thrills.

The Minitel – a rather sinister, computer-like terminal attached to classic telephone landlines – was installed in one million French homes by 1985. At the end of the 1990s, nine million terminals were linked to some 25,000 Minitel services. So the French invented the internet? No, not exactly.

Of two ideas launched in France in 1981-82, it was the seemingly backward-looking one – the TGV – which seduced the world. The Minitel, though far ahead of its time, was an evolutionary cul-de-sac. It never spread abroad and was overtaken in the 1990s by the "real" internet "invented" in the United States.

At the end of this month, Minitel will finally go offline, ending a brave experiment in French exceptionalism. The surprise is that the network has lasted so long. There are still 810,000 Minitel terminals in France, mostly used by older people who dislike computers. There are still 1,800 services available through Minitel, although most people these days contact them (final indignity) through the internet.

Argument still rages about whether the Minitel, run by France Telecom and its predecessor, the PTT, was a fast-track into the future or a destructive dead-end. The mushroom-coloured box has become an emblem of France's struggles with a globalised, and allegedly Anglo-Saxon dominated, world.

It has often been argued that the obsession of the French state with the Minitel impeded France's conversion to the internet. Either way, Minitel itself proved to be a kind of "Neanderthal" technology – a huge evolutionary advance that was doomed to be swept away by a smarter, more flexible and more aggressive cousin.

The Minitel was the world's first large data base accessible to the public. The Minitel terminal – provided free to subscribers – was the first screen-and-keyboard combination widely available in any country. Minitel had chat lines where people could commentate on world events, or their own lives, long before the blogosphere. There was even an abbreviated Minitel language, rather like "text speak", such as "slt, té ki?" (salut, qui es- tu; or hello, who are you?)

But Minitel, compared with the web, had many limitations. The terminals were not computers. They could not analyse or store information. They could not randomly "search" the network. They could only call up the addresses of the 25,000 or more services officially affiliated to the system. Access was pay-as-you-go or by subscription and – especially in the case of the sex lines on the "Minitel Rose" or "pink Minitel" – could be very expensive.

The imminent demise of the Minitel has produced a surge of reminiscences on the early days of the service. And at least one confession.

Gerome Nox, a veteran male French pop musician, admitted this week to the newspaper Libération that he had in a previous life been "Julie", an "animatrice" or hostess on one of the first Minitel text-sex lines. Few women wanted the work, he said, so most of the "hostesses", paid the equivalent of £2.50 an hour, were men.

"(The clients) were like a shoal of starving piranha fish," he said. "No hello. No polite openings. It was to the point and crude." After a while he realised that "my Julie" had become "disagreeable, wicked and odious". He announced online that he was a man "whose job is to inflate all your phone bills. So you've all been screwed, just like you wanted to be". He was fired the next day.

Bills run up on Minitel Rose became legendary. It is less known that beneficiaries of this early text-sex were conservative, regional newspapers. They received exclusive rights to set up lucrative Minitel services, including the Minitel Rose, after complaining that the dull little consoles appearing in every home in France would be the "death of print culture". Plus ça change.

Minitel had rivals in other countries, even before the internet spread around the globe. There was Ceefax in Britain and NAPLPS in the United States. But none of these systems were as comprehensive or effective as Minitel. On the US system, it could take six minutes for a single page to appear on the screen.

But France never managed to sell the Minitel technology abroad. The US took a great interest in the French invention in the 1980s but declined to buy it. By the 1990s, the internet was on the way. To all but the stubborn French, the future of information technology was personal computers linked, internationally, by the servers and search engines which created the web.

Even today, some French people still insist on the superiority of Minitel over the internet. There is a Facebook group calling for a "return to the Minitel". Older people, like Claudette, 80, say they will be devastated when they lose their little terminals. "I use it several times a week to consult my accounts," she said. "I have a little table with my Minitel, my telephone and my answering-machine. What else do I need?"

Gérard Neyret has been campaigning for three years for the Minitel system to be preserved. "You don't get the clouds of useless information that you get on the internet," he said. "There is no risk of viruses or fraud. It was a remarkable invention."

On the last day of this month, nonetheless, the last of the Minitel screens will go blank. It will prove to be a historic moment, much like the last day of the stage-coaches from Paris to Lyon or the last steam trains from Marseille to Calais.

French inventions: The three best...

Guillotine

This brutally efficient method of execution, also known as the "great equaliser", was pioneered during the French Revolution and adopted by other countries. It was used in France until the 1970s.

Aqua-lung

Invented in Paris in the winter of 1942-43 by naval officer Jacques Cousteau and engineer Émile Gagnan, the aqua-lung allows divers to descend hundreds of metres underwater by enabling them to carry the oxygen they breathe.

Hot air balloon

The first untethered, manned flight was made in a hot air balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers and launched on 21 November, 1783. Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne watched from the ground in Paris as their creation flew for 20 minutes.

...And three worst

Maginot Line

A vast defensive fortification built after the First World War on the border with Germany, it was seen as a military triumph. But it was useless as German forces outflanked it and invaded France through Belgium.

The euro

Few would blame its demise on the French, but the architect of the single currency was Frenchman Jacques Delors, then the president of the European Commission. Mr Delors recently said that the euro was "doomed from the start".

Parachute suit

Franz Reichelt, a French tailor and parachuting pioneer, met his end while demonstrating his parachute. He died on 4 February 1912 after leaping from the first platform of the Eiffel Tower in his parachute suit.

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
News
people
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Nurse

£40 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Nursery Nurse needed in salfordI a...

Nursery Nurse

£25 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery nurse needed in th...

Supply Teaching jobs in Thetford

£21588 - £31566 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

KS1 teachers needed in Peterborough

£110 - £125 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are ur...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape