Who Invented the Computer? France Telecom

Who Invented the Computer? This is the forty-fourth installment in our ongoing series.

As the 1970s dawned, the socialist French government was proudly touting its technological achievements. Through diligence, determination, and huge government infusions of money, France had several nuclear power plants in operation and was selling tickets to fly from Paris to New York City in a mere 3.5 hours aboard a supersonic airliner, the Concorde.

In spite of theses glossy monuments to modernization, however, the country was widely viewed as having the worst telephone system in the industrial world. Truthfully, the system was a disaster for a number of reasons.

First, telephones were considered a luxury item. The cost to purchase a telephone was exorbitant and having a line installed into your home or establishment was 10 times that cost. Only 16 percent of French citizens owned phones, compared to 53 percent in Sweden and 56 percent in the United States.

The City of Lights, with a population of 1 million, had an embarrassing 78 outdoor pay phones. Not surprisingly, the pay phones that were available were often poorly situated and difficult to find.

The second reason for the scarcity of telephones was that unlike in the United States, where phones could be operated by inserting coins, French pay phones required special tokens that could be purchased at the Post Office, cafes, restaurants, railroad stations and other establishments. Unfortunately, the tokens didn't always fit and, if they did, the phones themselves frequently failed to work correctly.

Establishments that housed pay phones added to the confusion by charging different amounts of tokens to use the devices.

The third reason had to do with the operator switchboards, particularly the local ones. Calls were frequently dropped and switchboard operators were indifferently trained. International switchboard operators were the sole reliable element of the system — it was a well-known fact that if you needed to make an important call within the country, it was better to call to New York City and have the foreign operator complete the connection inside of France.

It didn't help that legendary French statesman President Charles de Gaulle, who died in 1970 one year after completing a decade as the chief executive, detested le téléphone. De Gaulle dismissed telephones out of hand, preferring instead to communicate exclusively via mail.

Even after de Gaulle's death, it was nearly another decade before progress finally demanded that something be done.

Computerization Comes Knocking

That something was a 1978 report titled "Computerization of Society" by state-owned France Telecom (FT). The report set forth how French society could "ensure its technological independence from the United States," including the key step of upgrading its atrocious national phone network.

France Telecom espoused a simple and ingenious plan to layer interactive services on top of the telephone network and enable subscriber access through an easy-to-use terminal.

Government officials gave their approval and later that same year a group of FT engineers led by Bernard Marti began building the new network. It took them two years to complete and, on July 13, 1980, the system began a trial run in Brittany with 55 residential and business telephone customers.

The trial was a complete success. The subscriber console, consisting of a nine-inch CRT screen and a small keyboard built inside a hard plastic shell, proved simple to operate. Users had only to plug the console into their phone line, dial 3611 and select from the services displayed on the screen by dialing the appropriate number.

Users were thrilled with how easy they could access basic services such as reading newspapers, looking up telephone numbers, checking the weather, reserving movie seats, and ordering train tickets. Several other larger trials followed, each also a success. The console, officially known as TELETEL, was quickly nicknamed "Minitel."

As 1986 rolled around, everyone agreed that it was time to take Minitel nationwide.

A Star is Born

Every FT subscriber in the country who wanted to participate in the network had only to make a quick trip to their local post office to pick up a free Minitel.

With so many potential customers available, it wasn't long before entrepreneurs and established businesses joined the network with new offerings. Soon the Minitel facilitated online banking, purchasing of magazine subscriptions and plane tickets, travel and vacation arrangements, chat rooms, online dating, computer gaming, and even a 24-hour news service.

Admittedly, the images on the screen were blocky and nowhere near the pixel count available on the Internet today. Nevertheless, the resolution was good enough for people to comfortably play games, conduct various transactions, and read the results of the 1984 Olympics in real-time.

Basic Minitel services were free, but paid services quickly followed. The standard price for a paid service was a single franc per minute. There were no barriers to entry for companies that wanted to sell their product or services on the network. All they had to do was obtain a number for their service and begin selling.

Receiving payment was also problem-free, since usage of the system showed up on customer phone bills. Users paid their bills, FT took a modest cut, and the balance was forwarded to service providers.      

At its peak, the Minitel network provided access to 26,000 different services offered by more than 10,000 providers. There were also public Minitels located in every post office, restaurants, libraries, and the Paris subway.

Sex Sells

The popularity of chat rooms on the Minitel network exploded as friends, family, and acquaintances typed messages back-and-forth at a prodigious rate.

Unfortunately, as with any new technology, almost as soon as the network began operating, pornographic services started advertising. These adult sites, referred to as "messageries roses" (Pink Chat rooms) became so popular that they underwrote the free service offerings. They even once generated so much traffic that they crashed the entire network.

The government was embarrassed by the proliferation of "pink" rooms, but the amount of money coming in was too great for them to prohibit the service. Officials tried to pretend pink commerce didn't exist, but for a period of 10 years, walls along French streets were covered in posters advertising "beautiful, lonely women waiting to chat."    

All Good Things ...

At its peak, 25 million French people were using the network on a daily basis. Variants of the system were even exported to other countries, including Belgium, South Africa, and even the United States.

As the internet grew in popularity, however, Mintel usage dropped off dramatically. The internet was global and the availability of sites and services quickly outsripped what French consumers could get even from the multifaceted Minitel. Computers with rapidly advancing graphics and sound added to the siren song that gradually drowned out the phone-based Minitel console.

The French government finally shut the network down and all of its services migrated to the Internet in 2012. Even with its rapidly declining popularity, there were still 800,000 Minitel subscribers at that time.

A lot of people wonder why the Minitel remained in service for so long, especially since the Internet was in full-bloom by the early 2000s. The answer is money — up until 2012, the network was still profitable enough for the government to not pull the plug.


Although eventually rendered obsolete by the Internet, the Mintel showed that a nation could, on its own, develop an efficient and effective online system — something that no other nation had previously accomplished.

It also proved that, done correctly, it was possible for a government to introduce a new technology to a significant portion of its citizenry. Prior to connecting a Minitel console, many French citizens had never seen a computer, or even dreamed of using one.

Minitel chatrooms also proved effective at spreading news quickly and helping to mobilize large numbers of people. Decades before the so-called "Arab spring" blossomed on Facebook, Minitel technology fueled the French university student protests of 1986.  

In an embarrassing twist right out of the The Simpsons, the irony of pink rooms was exposed when a later study showed that the vast majority of "femmes magnifiques" chatting away in those rooms were actually college-age males, providing sex talk in exchange for free time on the Minitel network.

Not surprisingly, Minitel terminals can occasionally be found on eBay and other online shopping sites. There also remains a dedicated fan base of Minitel users who utilize emulators and adaptors to communicate with one another.

Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Calvin Harper

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.