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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