As reported on IEEE Spectrum, years before the Internet became more than a research/military project in the US, a network called Minitel was thriving in France. This system allowed users access to email, games, chat, and other pursuits, and caught on in a large part because the government gave free terminals to every French telephone subscriber.
This worked great until the late ’90s and early 2000s, when it was replaced by the wider Internet, leading to dumpsters and dumpsters full of discarded terminals. This also meant — and means — that these terminals are available on the secondhand market for around $25. For those in North America, however, actually getting one here from France will cost well more than the unit itself. North American hackers will need to supply their unit 220V AC as well, though there are apparently US versions if you can find one.
While basic by today’s standards, they have a very cyberpunk look and are simple enough to be a great hacking target. To this end, researchers Kevin Driscoll and Julien Mailland have been able to interface with the terminals using Linux and accomplish such feats as creating a Twitter client and an ASCII art webcam.
After getting their hands on the Minitel’s official technical specification, Driscoll and Mailland even built an Arduino Uno–based videotex server capable of displaying various screens and animations with the help of an old 16-bit teletext authoring tool.
If this sounds like a fun time, you can browse the Minitel Research Lab, USA website for more info. They’ve also written Minitel welcome to the Internet, which gives a bit more context on how the system was developed and used.
[h/t: IEEE Spectrum]