When it’s not just sticking fake gears on things and calling it a day, the Steampunk look is pretty cool. Imagining technology in a world stuck with Victorian aesthetics is a neat idea, and one that translates to the look of other time periods — Fallout, anyone?
But what if you try to create a technological aesthetic based on a more recent and less celebrated time? That’s what [ghettobastler] has attempted with this somewhat bizarre Minitel-YouTube-VCR mash-up. Taking inspiration from a webcomic’s take on “Formicapunk,” modern tech based on the aesthetic of the wildly successful French videotex service of the 70s and 80s, the system uses a very cool Minitel 1B terminal and a Raspberry Pi 3.
With the help of a level-shifting circuit, the Mintel and the Pi talk over serial, allowing the terminal to be used as, well, a terminal for the Pi. Videos are downloaded from YouTube by the Pi, which sends the video to the VCR from its composite output, and controls the VCR with an IR LED that emulates the original remote. Come to think of it, just watch the video below — it’s probably easier than trying to describe it.
It’s weird, true, but we love the look of that Minitel terminal. Something about it just screams cyberdeck; if anyone has a spare one of these, get busy and put something together for our Cyberdeck Design Contest.
For British teenagers in the 1980s, the delights of 8-bit computers such as the Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64, or BBC Micro were firmly restricted to the offline arena. We would read about the BBS scene on the other side of the Atlantic, but without cheap local calls and with a modem costing a small fortune, the chances of us ever experiencing one was zero. When we took the British school rite of passage of a trip to France though, we were astounded to see that every French person was not merely online, but that they were doing so with a neat little all-in-one terminal. We’d just been introduced to the French Minitel system, and in that minute shared a glimpse of the future.
Un Réseau Trés Français
In the 1970s and 1980s, so-called videotext systems, terminal-based phoneline access to information services on central computers, were seen as an obvious next step for telephone network operators with an interest in profitable new products. In most countries this resulted in services such as the UK’s Prestel, a subscription service relying on costly hardware, but France Télécom instead pursued the bold path of making the terminals free to subscribers with free access to phone listings and yellow pages, but a business model based on pay-to-use premium services.
Thus, through the 1980s all French households had a Minitel terminal beside the phone, and the service became a runaway success. Ever since seeing Minitel terminals as a tourist I’d been fascinated by the service, so here in the 2020s when a friend was visiting their family in France I asked whether he could pick up an old Minitel terminal for me. Thus I found myself parting with around $25 and being rewarded with a slightly battered Minitel cardboard box containing one of the familiar brown Alcatel terminals. I certainly wasn’t expecting one in its original packaging. Continue reading “Teardown: Alcatel Telic 1 Minitel Terminal”→
Most of us who are old enough are likely to have had our first experience of an online service some time in the 1990s, either through the likes of Compuserve or via an ISP. For our French readers the online experience will have come much earlier, as a forward-thinking telecommunications environment led to every household in the country receiving a viewdata terminal. The Minitel system as it was called was a runaway success, and was only finally turned off as late as 2012. Many of the terminals survive to make a great basis for projects, and it’s one of these that [Louis H] has taken and enhanced with an ESP32.
One of the special things about this project is that unlike so many other Minitel conversions it doesn’t involve tearing into the terminal itself. Instead the PCB plugs into the socket on the back of the unit and emulates the line for the terminal to talk to. It can then be used as an SSH terminal over WiFi, or as a serial terminal for the ESP32 itself for example running a MicroPython firmware. If you can handle the French AZERTY keyboard there is no easier way to drag a viewdata terminal into the 2020s, as you can see in the video below the break.
In 1980, France took a step into the future when the telecom companies introduced the Minitel system — a precursor to the Web where users could shop, buy train tickets, check stocks, and send and receive electronic mail through a small terminal. Minitel still had 10 million monthly connections in 2009, but the service was discontinued in 2012.
So, you can imagine how many Minitel terminals must be floating around at this point. [Gautchh] picked one up at a garage sale a while back and converted it into a battery-powered laptop for taking notes in class. Luckily for us, [Gautchh] recently open-sourced this project and has given us a wiring diagram, STLs, BOM, and a good look into the build process.
[Gautchh] started by gutting the Minitel, but saved the power button and the très chic power indicator that looks like a AA cell. The new 10.4″ LCD screen is held in place with four 3D-printed corner blocks and a bit of hot glue, and the original keyboard (which we’d love to clack on) is now wired up to an Arduino Pro Micro. The main brain — a Raspberry Pi 3B — is easily accessible through a handy little hatch in the back. Well, it looks like we’ve got a new ebay alert to set up.
Before the World Wide Web became ubiquitous as the de facto way to access electronic information, there were many other ways of retrieving information online. One of the most successful of these was Minitel, a French videotex service that lasted from 1980 all the way until 2012. But just because the service has been deactivated doesn’t mean its hardware can’t be used for modern builds like this Arduino-based operating system. (Google Translate from French)
Called ZARDOS, the operating system is built to run on an Arduino MEGA although a smaller version is available for the Uno. The Arduino is connected by a serial cable to the Minitel terminal. It can take input from a keyboard and PS/2 mouse and displays video on the terminal screen with the same cable. There is functionality built-in for accessing data on a cartridge system based on SD cards which greatly expands the limited capabilities of the Atmel chip as well, and there is also support for a speaker and a Videotex printer.
Even though the build uses a modern microcontroller, it gives us flashbacks to pre-WWW days with its retro terminal. All of the code is available on the project site for anyone looking to build an Arduino-based operating system, although it will take a little bit of hardware hacking to build a Minitel terminal like this. Either way, it’s a great way to revive some antique French hardware similar to a build we’ve seen which converts one into a Linux 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.
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.