There are many misconceptions surrounding the internet. People often assume it was invented in 1991, which was actually the year the World Wide Web debuted. The internet itself traces its origins back to 1960s’ American military communications projects. There’s also an assumption that the internet is one cohesive whole, even though the deep web and dark web stand apart from the surface content viewed through our browsers. It’s even claimed the internet represented the UK’s first introduction to dial-up data services. Yet in reality, a Post Office service had been transmitting digital content down our phone lines since the 1970s…
Pres to impress
Inspired by scientific predictions of digital futures, the Post Office began developing an interactive text-driven information service known as videotex. End users bought or rented a proprietary terminal, which was connected to a domestic telephone line and used to dial into remotely-hosted databases. These contained individual pages for companies or services rented from the Post Office and BT, just as website domains are acquired on rolling contracts through companies like UK2. At Prestel’s launch in 1979, 100,000 pages of information – from gardening tips to share prices – were already online.
Data was hosted in regional Information Retrieval Centres, from Edinburgh to Birmingham. These distributed content via the UK’s landline infrastructure to terminals which displayed results on TV sets. The information appeared on-screen in a form similar to the Ceefax and ORACLE teletext services of the time, with content arranged across 24 lines of 40 characters. These could be manipulated to display mosaic graphics, but not digital images. Page numbers appeared at the top, with system messages displayed at the bottom. And in the absence of search engines, alphabetical indexes provided instruction on where to find specific content.
Tomorrow’s world, yesterday
In many respects, the similarities between Prestel and dial-up internet are remarkable. Both involved the interrogation of remote databases using domestic terminals, wired into master phone sockets. Both tied up phone lines while streaming data, preventing simultaneous calls being made. Both were achingly slow. And both offered a glimpse into a world of two-way digital communications that the standalone 8-bit home computers of the era couldn’t match. Even Teletext provided a passive one-way experience.
Similarities with the internet go further still. Prestel pages adhered to a tree structure similar to a website’s subpages, where users could navigate forwards and backwards. A basic messaging service flashed up unread communiques, predating the ‘you’ve got mail’ chimes familiar to AOL customers. And in 1983, online banking came to the UK, a full 14 years before internet banking made its debut. Prestel was also the first place where people could order online groceries, chat in bulletin boards, or download software.
A French renaissance
While Ceefax and ORACLE were enthusiastically embraced by consumers (thanks largely to being free), Prestel remained a niche product. Even at its peak, only 90,000 UK households subscribed, mainly due to the prohibitive cost of peak-time data transfers and a lack of public awareness about the service’s scale and depth. Companies were deterred from participating by the high cost of publishing proprietary content, especially given modest target audiences. Yet things proved to be very different in France. State funding saw Minitel being embraced by consumers and businesses alike, particularly in the travel industry, and it remained operational until 2012.
Prestel seems comically dated by modern standards, but it was revolutionary in the 1980s. It is perhaps a shame that more people didn’t embrace this futuristic technology at the time. If they had, the UK might have become more of a world leader in the early World Wide Web development…