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Minitel: The Online World France Built Before the Web

A decade before the Internet went mainstream, French citizens were interacting via Minitel, a computer network open to anyone with a telephone

11 min read
Minitel terminal
SSPL/Getty Images

It was the late 1970s. Former French presidents Charles de Gaulle and George Pompidou had recently died. The Arab oil embargo caused energy prices to quadruple for a time. Marseille remained gripped by drug lords. And France had to face the fact that its telephone network was one of the worst in the industrialized world. Fewer than 7 million telephone lines served 47 million French citizens, and the country’s elite felt that the domination of U.S. firms in telephone equipment, computers, databases, and information networks threatened their national sovereignty. Or at least it damaged their cultural pride.

In an influential 1978 report to President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, titled The Computerization of Society, government researchers Simon Nora and Alain Minc argued that the solution to France’s telecom woes lay in “telematics”—a combination of telecommunications and informatics. They outlined a plan for digitizing the telephone network, adding a layer of interactive teletext video technology, and providing entrepreneurs with an open platform for innovation.

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Jay Last, a Father of Silicon Valley, Dies at 92

IEEE also mourns the loss of several former society presidents

4 min read
A smiling older man in glasses

Jay Last

Max S. Gerber/Redux

Jay Last

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How Claude Shannon Helped Kick-start Machine Learning

The “father of information theory” also paved the way for AI

3 min read
A photo of a man in a suit with his hand on a toy in a maze.
KEYSTONE/GETTY IMAGES

Among the great engineers of the 20th century, who contributed the most to our 21st-century technologies? I say: Claude Shannon.

Shannon is best known for establishing the field of information theory. In a 1948 paper, one of the greatest in the history of engineering, he came up with a way of measuring the information content of a signal and calculating the maximum rate at which information could be reliably transmitted over any sort of communication channel. The article, titled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” describes the basis for all modern communications, including the wireless Internet on your smartphone and even an analog voice signal on a twisted-pair telephone landline. In 1966, the IEEE gave him its highest award, the Medal of Honor, for that work.

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