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Ceefax as a forerunner to the Internet

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I am now on week 3 of Internet History Technology and Security and have started to look at the essay question;

In many ways the Internet is the result of experts exploring how people, information and technology connect. Describe one example of at least two of these areas connecting, and how that connection ultimately helped form the Internet. Your example should be taken from the time periods 1930-1980

The first thing I thought of was Ceefax. Ah bless Ceefax, it was a British institution that we seem to have quickly forgotten in this day and age of the Internet. There were however outpourings of love for it when it was switched off in 2012.

Ceefax was the worlds first teletext information service. Teletext was “created by John Adams and was a television information retrieval service developed in the UK in the early 1970s”. Wikipedia

Ceefax was first created by BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) engineers whilst developing a system for providing farming news and stock market results in the 1960s. However, the project was abandoned as the system for delivering the information, the Muirhead Drum Facsimile Transmitter, was clunky and too noisy. It was resurrected in the 1970’s as engineers worked on a project for providing subtitles for viewers with hearing problems. Whilst developing this they discovered “unused lines” on the analogue TV system which could be used to “transmit” Ceefax. Ceefax was launched in September 1974 with Colin McIntyre as the sole editor. He updated 24 news pages by feeding punch tape into machines. Later on journalists were recruited to keep up with the public’s demand for information. One of the early editors, Mort Smith describes the process;

“Ceefax journalists would monitor incoming wire copy and when a story was to be updated they would type at one of two production terminals and create a Ceefax page.

Then, they had to produce a punched tape – approximately a yard long – and take it down two flights of stairs to the Central Apparatus Room, load it into a tape reader and watch as it was read into an anonymous metal box called a core store which actually transmitted the pages.

A walk back up to the sixth floor followed and if, at that point, it was discovered that a spelling mistake had been made, the journalist had to go through the whole process again.

It ensured close attention to detail when writing!

BBC

Not every TV was able to receive Ceefax but as it increased in popularity in the 1980s people started buying Ceefax enabled TVs. People were able to get recipes from cookery programmes they had just watched, up to the minute news, sports results and even book their holidays. In the 1990s 20 million viewers checked Ceefax once a week. Radio Times

To get the information they wanted viewers had to punch in 3 digits on their remote control based on the menu on screen. It wasn’t quite as speedy as the Internet though. If the item you sought was part of several pages, you might arrive half way through and then had to wait until it went back to page one. This provided particularly tense moments for sports fans if their team score was page 1 of 5 and they arrived at page 2 and had to wait until it returned to page 1. I have included some additional information for the more technically minded of you who want to know the technicalities of how Ceefax worked.

These days it’s hard to imagine how revolutionary Ceefax was particularly as this was in the days before 24 hours news and when TV stopped transmitting after a certain time. With Ceefax people could still catch up on news and sport results when TV programmes finished transmitting for the night. At one point Ceefax even had “video” for the popular Oxford/Cambridge boat race. 2 dots represented the boats as they moved towards the finishing line.

As well as being a forerunner to the Internet, Ceefax was similar to Twitter in that characters per page were limited to 40 characters across and 24 lines down.

Even when the Internet arrived lots of people still relied on Ceefax. Not because they didn’t want it, Ceefax had already proved our thirst for information, but because they couldn’t afford it. Ceefax was the poor mans Internet. For a short period Ceefax even broadcast computer programs, known as telesoftware, for the BBCMicro.The BBCMicro was designed and built by Acorn who dominated the Education market but also supplied home computers in the UK. One fan of Ceefax commented on the BBC website;

Ceefax was also used to support the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project with pages in the 700 range backing up various programmes on the subject. Those with a BBC Microcomputer and the additional Teletext adapter could download software from Ceefax. Back then, this seemed like witchcraft, but is now commonplace for any computer connected to the Internet.

BBC

Ceefax was still running in 2012 and came to an end only when the analogue/digital switchover took place in the UK. As well as being a forerunner to the Internet, Ceefax “introduced” people to the World Wide Web and, for people who couldn’t afford the Internet later, was the only way they could “surf” for information. It showed how peopłe crave information and how it came to be a part of everyday life. Just like the Internet is now.

In my childhood we didn’t “Google it” we “Ceefaxed it”.

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