Bringing Back The Minitel

If you didn’t live in France in the 80s or 90s, it’s likely you missed out on one of the most successful computer networks in existence prior to the modern Internet. Known as Minitel, it was an online service available over existing phone lines that offered a connected computer terminal for users to do most things we associate with the modern world, such as booking travel, viewing news, looking up phone numbers, and plenty of other useful activities. While a lot of the original system was never archived, there are still some efforts to restore some of its original functionality like this MiniMit.

The build requires either an original or a recreation of a Minitel terminal in all its 80s glory, but pairs an ESP32 to support modern network connectivity. The ESP32 interfaces with the Minitel’s DIN socket and provides it with a translation layer between WiFi and the networking type that it would have originally expected to see from the telephone lines. Two of the original developers of Minitel are working on restoring some of the services that would have been available originally as well, which means that the entire system is being redeveloped and not just the original hardware.

We’ve mentioned that this system was first implemented in the 80s, but the surprising thing is that even well after broadband Internet would have been available to most people in France, the Minitel system still had widespread use, not being fully deactivated until 2012. They remain popular as inspiration for other projects as well, like this one which was brought a little more up-to-date with the help of a modern display and Raspberry Pi.

16 thoughts on “Bringing Back The Minitel

  1. “Two of the original developers of Minitel are working on restoring some of the services that would have been available originally as well [..]”

    Does this include the ‘Minitel rose’ ? Just kidding. 😆

    Minitel/Teletel was cute. 🐇
    Not as pretty as our German BTX, but it was okay (our Austrian neighbors were even better than us at BTX, IMHO). 🦄
    Until we got KIT upgrade in the mid-90s. 😁

    In the later years, the Teletex services united more or less. It was possible to send data between the networks. A European proto-Internet, so to say.

  2. I still have my Minitel 1B in the attic.
    I used to record and replay pages via my modified HP28S calculator and a custom made interface.
    Student time memories…
    I might reuse it some day as a serial terminal.
    I work for the company who invented it. There used to be signs at the entry of the city saying ‘Hometown of the Minitel’

  3. Current internet becomes more and more like Minitel was: one giant server handling the thousands of clients. It’s a very sad news for us, and the internet in general, since decentralization was the reason people switched from minitel to internet.

    Mail ? Now it’s Gmail, Hotmail, iCloud. Try to maintain a personal SMTP server and you’ll see how unfair the other server are with you because your domain doesn’t end in, or
    HTTP ? Hopefully with Let’s encrypt, there is some hope, but else, forget about maintaining your own HTTP server.
    Chat ? Nope. Even RCS (a GSM standard) which is supposed to replace SMS is a monopolized by Google. Not even speaking about Whatsapp, Telegram or others. Even Signal doesn’t let you run your own server.
    File transfer ? Good luck maintaining your own file transfer server, that’ll be refused by any client because “it’s not OneDrive / Google Drive / WeTransfer”
    Playing ? Well, did this require any example?

    All isn’t lost yet, but there is no fun on the road anymore…

    1. I totally disagree.

      HTTPs with Letsencrypt is a breeze.
      Any recent computer is way more powerful than in the Minitel era. And many people still runs their own BBS.
      Even running you mail server is possible. I did. The level of knowledge needed is a magnitude higher than 20 years ago *of course*

      “since decentralization was the reason people switched from minitel to internet. ” This is utterly complete, total BS. They switched to Internet because:
      – they could find the same service in the WWW and even more
      – (even before xDSL it was way WAY cheaper than the per minute costs of Minitel.
      – Also, and not the least: ASCII pron while it has its charm, was never so colorful and detailed than JPEG pron !!!

      99.99% of the users were NOT caring about “decentralisation”

      1. About the last point.. CompuServe’s GIF format was around since 1987. BTX decoders on PCs allowed to download files (Minitel ones, too, I assume). Back then, it was called “Telesoftware”, I belive.

        Of course, a simple Minitel terminal or German Multitel didn’t feature this, due to lack of storage. The Austrian MUPED terminals were more capable, though, maybe.

        PS: Also interesting, the American CompuServe service had supported pictures since the early-mid 90s. Years before GIF, they had a high-res format in monochrome. It was viewable on simple TRS-80 CoCo computers.

        Such graphics would have been viewable via Minitel/BTX, too, in theory.
        The CEPT glyphs could have been used to represent the pixel patterns.

        Maybe a firmware upgrade would have eventually had allowed direct pixel adressing, too, if Minitel/BTX had been more popular.

      2. I forgot to mention, the German KIT Standard for BTX did support real pictures. KIT stood for “Kernel for Intelligent Communication Terminals” .

        Technically, the French could have had adopted it, too. Minitel, as part of the Videotex family, was compatible enough to support that extension, I believe.

        PS: Please forgive me for the many comments here, but here in Germany the internet played a rather little role up until the mid-90s. That’s why I can imagine an alternative reality without the internet/world-wide-web.

        See, thanks to X.25 and ISDN, “the internet” wasn’t needed as much back then. We had pagers, GSM cell phones, telefax, Videotext (Teletext, via TV), picture phones etc. all without “the internet”. The French were similar, I suppose. They had Minitel, among other things.

        In fact, only few of us knew what “the internet” was about back in the mid-late 90s, despite the fact that everyone was online and multimedia was all around (CD-ROMs carried lots of pictures in high definition. Not just GIF, but 24-Bit TARGA). There were AOL, T-Online (BTX aka Datex-J), CompuServe, computer mailbox (aka BBSes), Fidonet etc.

        Oh, and we had E-Mail since the 1980s, before the internet. E-Mail always had been an international thing (CompuServe was popular for it, it used numbers to form an e-mail address). It was possible to send E-Mails across thev various networks.

        Alternatively, “messages” could be sent internally within the online services. BTX had a messaging system, too. BTX also had public terminals up until the early 90s, I think. Minitel perhaps had something similar.

        1. I can confirm a lot of this. I used BTX quite extensively in the second half of the 80’s, as a software on an Atari ST.

          It already allowed a lot of what later became common with the Internet. And I was able to do my banking online (I haven’t needed a brick & mortar bank since then).

          BUT: it was very expensive to use it in any serious way.

          Many of the page views costed a fee – and also any kind of service, messages, software – no matter how mundane.

    2. There are indeed some parallels.
      Back in the days of Prestel, Minitel, and BTX, there was an international infracture these closed systems were based on.
      It were the X.25 networks which were mainly tied together via public telephone lines.

      That’s, I think, is what many people don’t know or have forgotten about. Before the Arpanet or TCP/IP (or UDP) played a role, there had been X.25 networks that connected computers.

      So the internet as we know it today wasn’t even necessary/revolutionary. Without it, the world would have been connected, either way.

      Here in Germany, we had the Datex-P service which started in 1980 (other countries had their Datex-P equivalents).
      It was possible since then to connect to a database in the USA or Japan and retrieve information, without the need to pay a high telephone bill.

      Instead, you connected to your local Datex-P PAD with a modem/acoustic coupler and a dumb serial terminal (you had to be registered and pay a “low” monthly few for Datex accessl.

      It was even possible that the remote computer was paying the Datex-P costs for you.

      And when ISDN was introduced, it supported Datex-P/X.25 directly. Other services like CompuServe or BTX (later renamed Datex-J) were also reachable over Datex-P/X.25 infrastructure.

      Thanks to it, you could dial into American CompuServe from within Germany/Europe years before CompuServe had an official login there.

      You see people, the internet is a bit overrated. Just like the retro hype about BBS/mailbox systems are. Back then there was X.25. The amateurs independently had their AX.25, aka Packet-Radio.

      1. Thank you for the explanation and the link! 🙂👍

        There’s one other comment I’d like to make, though.

        The article says “In the United Kingdom, for example, all content on the Prestel videotex system was hosted on an IBM mainframe housed at the General Post Office. Germany’s BTX system was similarly arranged.”

        That’s about true, I suppose, but BTX did also allow external computers to host content. So it wasn’t a closed/centralized system by 100%. Online shops, traveling agencies and banks operated their own databases, for example. I believe that’s true for other Videotex systems of the time.

  4. Brazil also had their version of Minitel, called Videotexto. The service started operations in 1983 and was discontinued in 2003, and is pretty much forgotten around here.

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