Sep 25, 2019
In the 1980s in France there existed a service that was remarkably similar to the later world wide web. That service was called Minitel. It was first launched in 1980 and continued in use all the way until 2012. During that 32 year span Minitel served as both a network to connect the people of France, and a platform for startups and existing businesses to launch new remote services. Minitel was many things to a lot of people, but as of today the network is gone, and the existing terminals and assorted hardware lay dormant. However, there are ways to experience some of Minitel for yourself, thanks to the work of intrepid hackers and historians.
One approach to preserving Minitel is to find a way to connect the actual terminals up to some more modern tech. There are a few ways to do that, the easiest being simply sending serial data to the terminal. Most models of Minitel terminals actually had a serial port, so a lot of these types of projects focus on adapting the serial port to a USB interface. Once connected you can feed whatever data you want into the Minitel.
Another approach is to create your own Minitel server. Now, this is obviously much more complicated than just a serial to USB conversion. This is due to the fact that the network interface on a Minitel terminal is a modem, so you can't just use a web server. One such project, Jelora's Minitel server(https://www.jelora.fr/post/2017/08/27/Serveur-Minitel.html), uses a Raspberry Pi, VoIP line, and a lot of reverse engineering, to recreate a fully functional Minitel service.
On the other end of the spectrum is emulation. Minitel terminals are such simple devices that they are relatively easy to emulate, even inside a web browser. Sites like http://www.3614hacker.fr/ and http://3611.re/ let you experience using a Minitel service all inside your browser. Both those services are also available over phone lines using an unmodified Minitel terminal.
If you want to learn more about Minitel, it's history, and preservation, then I highly recommend checking out the Minitel Research Lab at http://mintel.us, and the labs recent book: "Minitel: Welcome to the Internet".
And for my thoughts on Minitel, you can listen to Advent of Computing's most recent episode: