Traveling with a Digital Companion, Minitel
Minitel, our first peek into the online digital world shows us how things back then are not all that different than they are today. Consider the last time you planned a trip, maybe headed to Nashville (pre-covid) for a little live music and chicken sandwiches? Or to NYC for a big interview on Wall St.? Likely, the first thing you did was plan out your travel route, by plane, train, or boat. Okay maybe not boat, but checking out Amtrak.com, Orbitz.com, or your other preferred mode of transportation is a prerequisite for making the trip. Now imagine you are in Montpellier, Southern France in 1981. Just before Minitel swept through the nation digitizing many aspects of life. You have a big sales meeting for your company in Paris next week and need to schedule a trip. Your options likely consist of calling into SCNF (Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer francais) and going through some longwinded conversation about your options that consist of morning or evening trains, with various stops or layovers and differing runtimes, or trekking into your nearest train station to decipher the schedule yourself. Then it hits you, a flight may be easier than a miserable 6-hour train ride through the unbelievably gorgeous French countryside while sipping on wine! Similar actions to the train scheduling ensue with flight planning and finally, you find a decent option that will take you from Montpellier to Paris for your meeting. Great!
Now imagine this same process a few years later with the help of the Minitel, a computer network containing a plethora of information and a surprising amount of NSFW content. Well, we do not have to imagine because Gareth Powell (1988) documented his experience in the Australian newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald. As a foreigner visiting Paris and documenting the Minitel his opening line reads, “DIFFICULT to overstate the success of Minitel in France. It is everywhere and all-pervasive.” Powell was there on holiday, so he may have used 3615 Michelin, but does not mention it in his writing. What he does mention though was his flight planning, stating that 3615 (keyword was not stated) provided “timetables of international flights, plus practical details covering all of the 68 major airports of France.” Moreover, only a few keystrokes away he found 3615 SCNF which was the online directory containing all pertinent train scheduling and terminals details. He took a train from de Lyon to Avignon, presumably to visit the historic site of Middle Age’s Christian Papacy, which was leaving at 11:35 (Peter). He concluded by affirming how impressed he was by the system, “Giving real and helpful information in an easy-to-understand form.” The system was perfect, as Powell said it was a powerful directory of information at the fingertips of all people in France. Trips for leisure, work, family, and more could now be planned efficiently in just minutes without brokering a booking agent like 3615 Michelin.
Wait, did I say it was perfect? I meant good, just as one Richard Larson (1987) of The Guardian in London would argue. Richard recounted his experience with the Minitel in 1987. He spent plenty of time oohing and aahing over the capabilities including 3615 METEO for weather tracking, ROUTE for road conditions, and CEVEN with its wide range of restaurant recommendations. After plenty of discussion concerning pricing and comparison to the UK version he utilized back home in the UK, he talks about SCNF. Larson was taking a trip from Avignon – must be a popular spot – towards Boulogne. He logged onto his Minitel each day leading up to his trip hoping to upgrade his coach ticket to a sleeping car. On the final day, the Minitel showed a vacancy. Unfortunately, Larson says the system “could not cope with the rather complicated rebooking, and crashed.” So, he ran off to the station to meet the booking clerk only to be met with a response that the sleeping cars were full. Larson pleaded that the Minitel showed an available car. Larson says he received the following response, “I don’t care about your Minitel.” Did Larson fall victim to the first modern computer glitch?
Surely not, but the story was interesting and funny nonetheless, showing how computers, like crashing PowerPoints, began frustrating us just as soon as it was invented. The Minitel and its travel programming including 3615 SCNF, METEO, and an unnamed flight service were by no means extravagant but were informational, easy-to-use, and widely available to the public making travel for any mean that much more accessible.
Sarson, Richard L. 1987. “Computer Guardian: Travels with a Minitel.” The Guardian, October 15, 1987.
Powell, Gareth. 1988. “PSSST – YOU LIKE TO SEE SOME FILTHY MATERIAL?” Sydney Morning Herald, October 24, 1988.
Peter. “What is Avignon Famous For” francetravelblog.com, What is Avignon Famous for – France Travel Blog