Who Invented The First Internet? Mon Dieu! The French.

Much of the global economy, and many of our software applications operate on the Internet. When people think about the beginnings of the Internet, the US military and Al Gore often come to mind. The military’s impact on the Internet is clear; Al Gore’s contribution is a bit more speculative. When we think about how we use the Internet today, the first name we think of is Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.

What the French did was put banking and other transactions online long before there was a World Wide Web. Their system was called the Minitel. So what did the French do with the Minitel? They made a national internet, before there was an international one.

The French have always been pioneers in communications. Back when the mail was delivered several times per day in Europe and Russia, the French had the idea of sending the mail from one post office to another using pneumatic tubes like you see at the drive-in bank teller. They called this system the pneu.

In France, La Poste also operated as a bank. So it was natural that starting in 1978, the French PTT (Poste, Téléphone et Télécommunications) began offering customers a Minitel terminal that they could use to access their bank accounts from home. Their system grew, allowing online train reservations and some much more sexy information. (It was France, after all.) Magazine advertisers would print their Minitel code, so that you could punch it in the Minitel terminal to read more about their products. The system grew to 25 million users. It was shut down only in 2012.

This writer knows about the Minitel, because I studied French for seven years or so, starting with a subscription to the French version of The Readers Digest and a dictionary to translate it one word at a time. Then I took French classes at the Alliance Française, which is a worldwide network of French language schools. The French have always been keen on expanding their culture, for example, subsidizing films and setting up an academy to keep Anglicized words like computer from creeping into the language by making a French equivalent (ordinatuer). I was such a Francophile that I figured out how to tap into the Minitel from the US, so I could learn about that.

The French tried to expand the Minitel into Ireland and Belgium, but it did not spread far. In France, newspapers felt threatened by the device. They thought it would cut into their ad revenue. So they turned to politicians for help, who limited newspaper publishing there. Le Monde and others were certainly right about advertising: newspapers have indeed seen their business model dissolve because of the Internet. They can thank the French for that.

Of course, when you make an electronic deposit to your bank account, download a song from iTunes, or write some code using a SaaS development environment, you also might want to say a quick merci.