A Minitel Terminal As A USB Linux Terminal

If you paid a visit to France in the 1980s the chances are you’d have been surprised to see a little brown screen and keyboard sitting next to the telephones wherever you went. At the time, it was another reason apart from the food, wine, and super-fast trains to envy our Gallic cousins. This was Minitel, their take on the cutting-edge of online data services of the day.

Minitel stood apart from similar services of the day in most other countries, because of its business model. Unlike the UK’s Prestel or West Germany’s BTX for which you had to spend significant money on a terminal, the French Minitel terminals were free. Thus in the early 1980s everybody in France was busy using videotext while most of the rest of Europe was still excited by chipping bits of flint into arrow heads. Or at least, that’s how it seemed at the time to those of us who didn’t have Minitel.

The Minitel service was finally shuttered in 2012, but the terminals can still be found. [Tony Pigram] bought one, an Alcatel Minitel 1, and made it into something useful by turning it into a USB serial terminal for his Raspberry Pi. Surprisingly the physical interface between the Minitel and the USB port is a relatively simple level shifter, but the configuration of both the Minitel and the Pi was anything but.

The problem was that Minitel terminals were meant to work with Minitel, and [Tony]’s difficulties were increased by his machine being an earlier model without the handy function key to access settings found on later terminals. A lot of research paid dividends though, and he now has what must be one of the most compact and stylish CRT serial terminals available. We can’t help noticing it has a QWERTY keyboard and English menus, it would be interesting to know which non-French market it was made for.

We’ve featured an RS-232 integration into a Minitel terminal before here at Hackaday, but if you are really interested in Gallic retro-tech take a look at our discussion of their 8-bit scene.

20 thoughts on “A Minitel Terminal As A USB Linux Terminal

  1. Later models (Mintel 1B) supported 80 columns :-)

    I once used one with a Sharp PC pocket computer (through the 15 pins connector on the calculator) as a large display for the BASIC programs. It was a long time ago…

  2. Just abusing think tank here:
    I have minitel 1, but it seems to be older model http://imgur.com/D6n42u2 and I can’t disable the local echo. So, anything typed on keyboard is echoed on display immediately, having limited usability as regular terminal. I tried all possible key combinations found on internet to disable it, but no avail, it seems to be ignored.

    Does anybody have idea how to disable the local echo?

    BTW, I made some random teardown photos here https://picasaweb.google.com/111890741167251011072/Mintel?authuser=0&authkey=Gv1sRgCL6juoDGwLnhzwE&feat=directlink and returned it back into working condition, don’t worry ;-)

  3. “Surprisingly the physical interface between the Minitel and the USB port is a relatively simple level shifter”

    And a USB-serial bridge chip.

    ” it would be interesting to know which non-French market it was made for.”

    It reads on the screen, “VO1.UK SOFTWARE”

    1. Yeah. It looks to be a UK terminal made to do Prestel (UK) and Teletel (France) as it is visible in one of the setting page photos.

      I’m curious as to why 7 bit RS232 is used instead of 8 bit which it also supports? Going by the settings screen, you need to set the serial port on your computer to be 1200 baud 8E1.

      As for the doubled up text, it is because the tty is set to echo input but the Minitel terminal appears to do it locally already. The echo parameter on the stty line needs to be changed to -echo which will disable it.

      Presumably if you can work out the cursor positioning strings that the terminal understands then you can make a custom termcap for it if one doesn’t already exist. The terminal should be usable then and won’t have the VT100 cursor positioning commands showing.

      1. For English you only need 7 bits and assume the 8th is always zero. You can thank the Americans and Brits for that, having been the two countries where most of this computer/telecom/network stuff was invented.

        Sending only 7 bits per character made transmission speed 1/8th faster. Then it required special commands for transfer of binary data files such as programs and images, otherwise a router or gateway would not pass 1/8th of the data and useless gibberish would arrive at the destination. Some such systems were 7 bit only, no 8 bit mode, which is why UUencode and other methods of encoding binary files as 7 bit text were invented.

        It used to be common practice (especially for Macintosh files) to have small test files to download to see if there was something in the route from server to user that would flip all the 8th bits to zeros. Then you’d download the real file archived or encoded like the test file which worked. If you could download the binary version or 8 bit text encoded version you’d save on time and amount of data – which back in the day used to be metered instead of unlimited.

  4. I still think someone should just start building them into walls of their homes and workspaces in a sort of Deus Ex wallmount terminal. The whole thing just hides away behind the flip-down keyboard.

  5. These things were terrible!! The screen was small, most of the time black & white, and worst of all, the keyboard was horrible! Keys would get stuck every 5 letters you typed on it.
    And when the internet finally started to be something usable, French government decided the Internet had no future (There’s a paper on this somewhere online, I just can’t find it right now) and the Minitel would still be pushed forward. We lost close to 5 years developing internet access…
    On the same subject: there were almost no BBS in France as well, as everyone used the Minitel, a shame really…

    1. Though Minitel sucked compared to what we have today I doubt so many expected the spetember-which-never-ended Internet as we know it to become the dominant standard. While I had experience with BBSs, fidonet, and something called The Source, I also knew of Minatel which appeared to be a more useful service in the 80s for everything from real airline bookings to restaurant reservations(I think you could even buy stuff), and there was real and deep penetration vs the US in BBS days where computers were only for geeks or work. The open not-for-profit mil-government-educational model of the Internet as we know it seemed by 1993 like a soap bubble destined to pop or be eclipsed forever in the face of a winner between MSN, AOL, Compuserve etc, something which we increasingly see as neo-AOLers brick themselves up into a Facebook online experience and abandon open things like email. I am actually surprised and think we narrowly dodged a bullet that there was not a critical mass of large corporations early on buying up online space on one of the online services vs small time geek businesses selling dialup internet which made commercial websites a thing worth doing. Minatel had critical mass in France, had it been a thing in the US or had France and its near critical mass Minatel population been Anglophone I suspect we would have never seen universal acceptance of singular wild west Internet as the network we all work, learn, and play on vs multitudes of online islands large and small.

    2. Well, I disagree. There things were/are great! You can’t judge this from the perspective of an ‘Internet native’ it’s not the same thing. I love tinkering with the Teletext decoders in old UK TV’s as well. I find this technology warm and friendly, where the modern internet is very cold and commercial now!

  6. Minitel was not precisely free, it was proprety of the state! The state owned telephone company France Telecom decided to replace paper telephone indexes by a teletext service for everyone who asked for. So the terminals where not the proprety of the users. When the minitel services where finaly tuned of, France Telecom, now Orange, “forgot” to ask them to return the terminals since the law required to recycle and avoid environment contamination, which has a cost.
    A a result plenty of Minitel terminals are still catching dust in some attic in France. You can find them for a few Euros.
    I used one as arduino human interface. Works well. I have seen people converting the CRT into b&w video monitors, nice base for a fallout retro computer project. And even one guy turned it into an android device, playing angry birds on a 1980’s Minitel…

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