Prestel: The British Internet That Never Was

For an exciting moment in the 1980s, it seemed that Britain could become the world’s first online society. So what happened to Prestel, the Post Office’s proto-internet?
Tom Lean | Published in 23 Aug 2016
A Prestel display at the Science Museum, 2009. John Greenaway (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Over the last 20 years there is no technology that has affected daily life as much as the Internet. From social media to supply chains, to shopping to online services, it has opened up countless new electronic opportunities and worked its way into the fabric of society. While we are right to be concerned about some of its effects, it is hard to see why a society would reject such an innovation as the Internet. Yet that is just what happened in 1980s Britain. Prestel, a nationwide information network invented by the Post Office, put homes and businesses online for the first time, offering information and services remarkably like those of the World Wide Web. For an exciting moment, it seemed that Thatcher's Britain would become the world's first online society, but Prestel never took off, becoming a mere footnote in the history of networking.

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