How to Shop Online & Check Your E‑Mail on the Go: A 1980s British TV Show Demonstrates

“Links between com­put­ers and tele­vi­sion sets are, it is always threat­ened, about to her­ald in an age of unbe­liev­able con­ve­nience,” announces tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter Tony Bastable in the 1984 clip above, “where all the socia­bil­i­ty of going down to your cor­ner shop to order the week’s gro­ceries will be replaced with an order over the air­waves.” Do tell. Live though we increas­ing­ly do with inter­net-con­nect­ed “smart TVs,” the only unfa­mil­iar-sound­ing part of that pre­dic­tion is its ref­er­ence to tele­vi­sion sets. But back then, most every home com­put­er used them as dis­plays, and when also plugged into the tele­phone line they grant­ed users the pre­vi­ous­ly unthink­able abil­i­ty to make instant finan­cial trans­ac­tions at any hour of the day or night, with­out leav­ing the house.

Mun­dane though it sounds now that many of us both do all our work and get all our enter­tain­ment online, pay­ing bills was a draw for ear­ly adopters, who could come from unlike­ly places: Not­ting­ham, for instance, the Not­ting­ham Build­ing Soci­ety being one of the first finan­cial insti­tu­tions in the world to offer online bank­ing to its mem­bers.

Clos­er to Thames Head­quar­ters, North Lon­don cou­ple Pat and Julian Green appear in the clip above to demon­strate how to use some­thing called “e‑mail.” But first they must hook up their modem and con­nect to Pres­tel (a nation­al online net­work that in the Unit­ed King­dom played some­thing like the role Mini­tel did in France), an “extreme­ly sim­ple” process that will look ago­niz­ing­ly com­pli­cat­ed to any­one who grew up in the age of wi-fi.

I myself grew up using the TRS-80 Mod­el 100, an ear­ly lap­top inher­it­ed from my technophile grand­fa­ther. Bastable whips out the very same com­put­er in the seg­ment above, shot dur­ing Data­base’s trip to Japan. “The big advan­tage of a piece of equip­ment like this is to be able to cou­ple it up back to my home base over the tele­phone line using one of these,” he says from his seat on a train, hold­ing up the acoustic cou­pler designed to con­nect the Mod­el 100 direct­ly to a stan­dard hand­set, in this case the pay phone in the front of the car­riage. Alas, Bastable finds that “none of us have got enough change to make the call to Eng­land,” forc­ing him to check his mes­sages from his hotel room instead. Would that I could send him a vision of my effort­less expe­ri­ence con­nect­ing to wi-fi onboard a train cross­ing South Korea just yes­ter­day. The future, to coin a phrase, is now.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How to Send an E‑mail: A 1984 British Tele­vi­sion Broad­cast Explains This “Sim­ple” Process

How France Invent­ed a Pop­u­lar, Prof­itable Inter­net of Its Own in the 80s: The Rise and Fall of Mini­tel

From the Annals of Opti­mism: The News­pa­per Indus­try in 1981 Imag­ines its Dig­i­tal Future

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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