TELETEXT IS 40 years old this week. Ceefax, the world's first teletext service, was launched to the public in September 1974 at a time when television sets that used the service were so few and far between that the engineers - who were usually middle-aged bearded men - could send messages to their wives to tell them what time they would be home for tea, and no one would be any the wiser.
Today, it's quite easy to talk about the blocky graphics and primary colours of teletext in the past tense, as Ceefax was switched off during the switchover to digital television in 2012. However, it's still running in some European countries and its influence can still be felt throughout the internet enabled technology world.
American viewers are likely to be slightly bamboozled by all this, as US broadcasters had already adopted the Closed Captioning system for TV subtitles, the original intention for teletext services, so the full array of blotchy news and sports pages that changed when you hadn't finished reading them, and jokes that hid their punchlines hidden until you pressed the "Reveal" button never really caught on Stateside.
For UK viewers, on the other hand, bamboozle has an entirely different meaning. Bamboozle was the hugely popular quiz game on Channel 4's teletext service, which went by the inspiringly original name of "Teletext", and it is most users' most endearing memory of the service. In fact, when the topic of this feature came up in the office, everyone's first thought was of Bamboozle.
But what of Ceefax? When its digital successor, variously known down the years as BBCi, BBC Interactive, BBC Text and simply "The Red Button", came online, viewers hated it because it used cursors and menus and highlighting. In the end the BBC re-introduced the idea of page numbers, replicating its predecessor to make viewers more comfortable. But with the rise of the web and mobile phones, usage was already starting to decline anyway. BBC Red Button Text, or whatever it's called this week, is still there, but when was the last time you referred to it?
Despite its decline, even today, ask anyone what "888" means and they'll tell you that it's the page you dialled for subtitles on the current programme. Some with very long memories will even be able to recall experiments with so-called "telesoftware", teletext pages that were downloadable as computer programs for the BBC Micro.
There were other teletext services, too. The forerunner to Teletext was ORACLE, which stood for 'Optional Reception of Announcements by Coded Line Electronics', a more literal description of the service that piggy-backed on the spare capacity of the analogue TV signal. Ceefax just meant "See Facts". Channel 4 had 4-Tel, S4C had Sbectel. BBC2 briefly broke away in the late '80s to rebrand its Ceefax service as Orbit. It didn't last, and the Ceefax name returned soon after.
The viewer had no control over when the page would "flip" if there were multiple sub-pages, and it was inevitable that if you were reading an indepth news story, it would "flip" when you hadn't finished, but waiting for that night's TV listings it would take longer than it would have to leave the house, get in the car, go to the newsagents, buy a Radio Times, drive back and sit down again.
But we loved teletext. In the days before 24-hour television, Ceefax On-View would allow those not availed of such bleeding-edge technology to read the latest recipes and get the day's headlines, all accompanied by some extremely cheesy, but occasionally sublime, music.
For those of us that had a teletext set, it was the zenith of cool. In a day when the internet was still a twinkle in the eyes of a CERN engineer, it really was the world at your fingertips. Hundreds of pages of news and information at the touch of a button, controlled by a computer in London with the RAM of a ZX81.
It set our expectations for on-tap news and weather, and helped shape the information age of today. µ
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