Arduino Revives A Classic 1980s Minitel Terminal

Before there was the Internet, there were a lot of would-be Internets. Compuserve comes to mind, as do Prodigy, GEnie, Delphi, and the innumerable BBS systems that were once gateways to worlds beyond our CRT monitors and 300 baud Hayes Supermodems.

Service providers varied by region, of course. The French postal and telephone service rolled out their service, Médium interactif par numérisation d’information téléphonique, in 1978. Mercifully and memorably shortened to Minitel, the service was originally intended primarily as an online telephone directory, and later expanded to include other services. [Kevin Driscoll] and [Julien Mailland] recently resurrected a Minitel terminal, a Videotex terminal that was the gateway to the service. The terminal they used, a model 1B, is a stylish machine with a monochrome CRT display and compact “AZERTY” keyboard. [Kevin] and [Julien] built a Videotex server for it using an Uno and a logic-level converter to keep the two talking. Using the hardware, they’ve developed a Twitter client, a webcam display, and dumb Linux terminal.

[Julien] and  [Kevin] previously authored a great history of Minitel that’s worth a read. And we’ve seen a few Minitel hacks before, including converting one to USB for use as a Raspberry Pi terminal.

16 thoughts on “Arduino Revives A Classic 1980s Minitel Terminal

  1. I remember when I was a children, in 1982 they let us try it at my primary school, and we had a lot a fun searching for homonyms (or stupid names) in the entire country, when we only had the local paper phonebooks before that, as it was initially meant at replacing the electronically and leased at no cost (except telecommunications fees) to phone subscribers.

    Three years later, I found a little schematic to hook it to an Apple II and use it as a modem. I was 13, and older nerds at the computer club of a Youth Centre near Paris (MJC Vincennes) ignored me when I said that all we needed was a Minitel, a cable and a $50 piece of software ( https://github.com/cquest/cristel ) to set up our own Teletext server programmed in Basic ! (The director, a computer enthusiast, was eager of this possibilty to get, for nothing, a (single line but edgy) Minitel service to annouce shows and activities but totally sceptical and invited me to handle this alone… The mayor’s office was very amused to accomodate such a ridiculously low subsidy request from a child, for a project that was clearly believed innacessible to mere mortals ! then the nerds confiscated it soon after it went live as a useful forum, to progressively turn it into their own private warez 1337 server…)

    Circa 1990, you could almost find a unit in every (french) household, but many parents locked them to avoid hefty bills since, besides some occasionnal access to pratical services (weather reports, tickets reservation), it was very expensive to use, and a synonym for “erotic chatrooms”, advertized everywhere, like the famous “3615 ULLA”, the digits were the phone number to the main central portal of Télétel.

    Most Minitels were never returned to the national “Post, Telegraphs & Téléphones” administration. In the late nineties, before mainstream ISP appeared, a student friend of mine used one as his “home computer” to access an unofficial Internet gateway at the Université de Jussieu, which I think emulated a VT100 terminal to his Unix user account there.

    Nowadays people sell them to vainglorious makers, so proud to hook it to an Arduino or Raspeberry Pi and to let know the whole world :)

  2. I still have one in the attic.
    I used to use my hacked HP28s calculator as a serial Minitel page recorder/player in the early 90’s.
    Services were billed by the second and were not cheap for the student I was then (I live in the city and work for the company that invented the Minitel).

    1. I had the dubious privilege of having to collect data from Minitel-oriented telemetry roughly ten years ago, and was looking at the specialist font files just a couple of days ago. Never got round to automating it properly.

      MarkMLl

    1. In 1996, the Montreal Freenet came online, after three years of waiting, and it lasted four months.

      I don’t know what the deal was, but they had a pile of Alex terminals, not sure if they gave them out or sold them. So they could be used as regular ASCII terminals.

      Michael

  3. I happen to have a unit for minitel (although it wasn’t called that here and it was never that popular).
    It works, but the batteries had leaked, so it forgets all settings everytime i turn it off. I removed the batteries, but since i have nothing to connect to, i haven’t really done anything with it.

    I’ve been searching for some emulated minitel server thing, and there are couple, but i haven’t had time to look into it more.

    I have to read the whole article, maybe i can get something done with it at some point.

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