Ceefax: an obituary

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POSTED: October 23, 2012

Ceefax began on 23 September 1974. It provided screens of text-based news and information including news headlines, sports scores, weather forecast and TV listings. When it started it was maintained, and updated manually, by one man, Colin McIntyre, who died in May 2012.

He was appointed as the first editor of Ceefax. At the beginning his job was primarily to type up news that he read and copy-edited from wire services, turning it into rolls of punched-tape which were fed into a tape reader from where they were “read into an anonymous metal box called a core store which actually transmitted the pages”.

A Ceefax screen from its last-ever day

According to the BBC news site, “Ceefax had initially been developed when BBC engineers, exploring ways to provide subtitles to enable viewers with hearing problems to enjoy BBC TV programmes, found it was possible to transmit full pages of text information in the ‘spare lines’ transmitted on the analogue TV signal.”

In the beginning nobody watched it, or in the official description “the service was a minority interest”. Later the BBC came up with the cunning wheeze of broadcasting it on actual televison throughout the night and before the morning programmes. This meant that people stumbled across it accidentally, which in turn led them to actually use it. By the early nineties, before the internet ruined everything, twenty million people used it at least once a week.

Today, the BBC tells us, “Olympic champion Dame Mary Peters will turn off the last analogue TV signal in Northern Ireland at 23.30 BST. A series of graphics on Ceefax’s front page will mark its 38 years on the BBC.” This will leave Britain with a digital-only television service in which Ceefax – technically – can have no role.

In a world of digital television the revolution will not be pixelated.