Ceefax Final Broadcast: 'Goodbye, cruel world.'
Back in the early 70s, The British Broadcasting Corporation were developing a system to provide accessibility features to deaf TV viewers. These subtitles were to be transmitted via unused parts of the broadcast spectrum and by 1974, BBC had launched the worlds first Teletext service. Thus Ceefax was born.
( The Ceefax landing page, 1983. Click for more screen shots, 'An Evening With Ceefax'. )
Although Ceefax was the first to the gate, BBC wasn't the only horse in race. Like with most leaps in technological innovation, there were several competitors working on similar products. The Independent Television Authority (an organisation responsible for setting up the UK TV station, ITV) were developing ORACLE (Optional Reception of Announcements by Coded Line Electronics) and the UK Post Office later released a service called Prestel.
ORACLE's implementation was largely similar to Ceefax's as both were exploiting the airwaves to deliver content, however there were some differences between the two designs. Ceefax used a character grid of 32x24 (32 characters per line, 24 lines per screen) while ORACLE was operating at 40x22. And although both used 7-bit ASCII characters, ORACLE supported some basic graphics characters for constructing rudimentary images. This caused incompatibilities between the early systems but rather than battle each format out, the Teletext forerunners decided instead to detail an agreed set of standards. So by 1974, all Teletext services operated at a resolution of 40x24.
Prestel was a different implementation to the "over the air" transmissions that other Teletext services used. Prestel used bespoke terminals receiving data via the phone line (much like France's own pre-internet service, Minitel). This gave Prestel a slight advantage in some areas where a TV-based solution suffered - the most obvious of which being the terminals QWERTY keyboard versus a TV remote. So despite the limitation of not supporting most TV sets, Prestel still attracted 90,000 subscribers.
( Prestel Terminal )
Teletext offered a fantastic introduction to a world of information on demand, back before the internet was plumbed into most homes and even before Tim Berners-Lee had invented the World Wide Web. Teletext viewers would switch on to read the news, check for travel and weather updates and even to book cheap holidays. There were also games to be played (as a teenager in the 90s, I'd occasionally play Bamboozle) and crude ASCII porn on some adult channels.
Teletext was one of the forerunners to the "information era" we currently enjoy and Ceefax was the pioneer of Teletext. But sadly all technology gets superseded and then depreciated - regardless of how significant it's contribution may once have been. ORACLE ceased transmitting in 2009, Prestel many years earlier; and now due to the digital TV switch over -and thus BBC's new red-button service- Ceefax has reached it's final day too.
The following passage is taken from an unofficial mock up which has been circulating the net, however I believe it to be a fitting tribute to the world leading BBC service:
By the time you read this, I will be dead.
When I started out in 1974, I was the future - TV's first robot newsreader. But what once seemed cutting-edge is now regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned, and I have been frozen out by the powers that be, yet another victim of BBC ageism.
I can't take it any more. It's a struggle to get up for the nightshift, and my poor pixels are tired. My friend Oracle said it would end like this.
Goodbye, cruel world.
( A mock up suicide note depicting the death of Ceefax )
Josephlord over at Hacker News has pointed out that modern digital services do support Teletext.