Ceefax: The early days

Mort Smith and friend Mort Smith and colleague prepare the Ceefax Christmas special

Ceefax is being laid to rest. Mort Smith, who worked on the service during its early days, remembers the pioneering teletext service.

The invention of teletext back in the early 1970s was something of an accident.

BBC engineers based down at the research department at Kingswood Warren were actually trying to find a way to provide programme subtitles for the hard-of-hearing, using an otherwise unused part of the 625-line television signal - called the field blanking interval.

They succeeded - but in so doing, it quickly became apparent that the same principle could be used to send all kinds of other messages - news, sports results, financial information, weather reports - and Ceefax was born.

About the author

composite
  • Mort Smith was part of Ceefax's launch team
  • In 1981 he moved to Chicago to work on the first US commercial teletext service, Keyfax
  • He is now a newspaper editor for Trinity Mirror Group

In 1974, long-serving BBC journalist Colin McIntyre was given the job of editor, charged with building and launching the UK's first teletext service.

It formally took to the air in the autumn of that year.

McIntyre recruited a team of eight to work on the fledgling service - four sub-editors and four research assistants - who were based at BBC Television Centre in Shepherd's Bush, initially in a small room on the sixth floor of the building.

The early days of the service proved anything but hi-tech.

Ceefax journalists would monitor incoming wire copy from Reuters, the Press Association and the BBC's own internal news distribution service, GNS, and when a story was to be updated they would type at one of two production terminals and create a Ceefax page.

Then they had to produce a punched tape - approximately a metre long - and take it down two flights of stairs to the Central Apparatus Room (CAR), load it into a tape reader and watch as it was read into an anonymous metal box called a core store which actually transmitted the pages (It could hold a mere 24 pages at that point).

News from Ceefax's first few weeks

tv set
  • 11 October: Harold Wilson re-elected PM after Labour wins year's second general election
  • 30 October: Mohammed Ali beats George Foreman to world heavyweight title in Zaire
  • 28 November: John Lennon joins Elton John on stage at Madison Square Garden in New York

A walk back up to the sixth floor followed and if, at that point, it was discovered that a spelling mistake had been made, the journalist had to go through the whole process again. It ensured close attention to detail when writing.

When Ceefax launched, it was rumoured that there were only four teletext-capable TV sets in the whole UK - one in the BBC director general's office, one for the director of engineering, one at Kingswood Warren and one in Colin McIntyre's home.

It proved an invaluable service for the editor who used to alert his wife that he was about to leave Television Centre on his way home by using a back page on Ceefax.

The early teletext decoders consisted of large metal boxes - wire-wrapped prototypes.

Although the process was unwieldy, those who worked on Ceefax during the pioneering days were conscious that they were taking part in an information revolution of some magnitude long before the world wide web arrived on the scene.

As the service developed, more unused signal capacity was devoted to it and Ceefax moved into its first permanent home in Room 7059 on the top floor at Television Centre.

Ian Irving and Adrian Robson

It wasn't just breaking news that found its way into the growing portfolio of information carried on Ceefax. Sport, business, travel and weather forecasts were added to the service.

McIntyre also insisted that the service contain a page of quirky stories which he called "Charivari" and which gave the journalists liberty to put in the occasional item that wasn't quite "BBC" in style or content.

There was a lot of experimentation to try to find which colours worked best for conveying information effectively.

McIntyre commissioned a study from the London School of Art and Design into which of the seven teletext colours was the easiest to read.

ceefax page Some colours worked better than others

Green turned out to be the easiest, followed by cyan (light blue) and yellow, with white also acceptable. Red, dark blue and magenta were no-go areas according to the experts and so Ceefax copy tended to use only the "viewer-friendly" colours.

Some sub-editors developed an uncanny skill for producing recognisable pictures using the chunky Ceefax graphics.

Chief among them was Ian Irving - another of the original team - who revolutionised the look of the service by introducing stylish graphic headings for the various sections, weather maps, cartoons and all kinds of special designs.

He later went on to create a long-running cartoon serial called 4-T about a little dog for the Channel 4 teletext service, 4-Tel.

Ceefax also started to cater for those interested in leisure.

Programme listings for the broadcast channels, film, book and car reviews, recipes, holiday tips, kids quizzes and puzzles all became a regular part of the Ceefax diet.

Boffins

One one occasion in 1976 the editor asked me and another of the journalists, Georgina Howarth, to put together a Christmas special consisting of quizzes, Christmas facts, an advent calendar with a different festive graphic behind each "door" (shown by pushing the "reveal" button on the keypad) and Christmas TV guides.

We then came up with the ridiculous idea of running a bingo competition.

We concealed hidden numbers on some of the pages and invited people to write into TV Centre for a set of six printed bingo cards - so the whole family could play along.

To find the hidden numbers, punters used to have to look at every teletext page every day for a 10-day period - literally hundreds of pages.

Bingo Ceefax bingo competition - now closed

We thought we'd be lucky to get 100 entries - we got 5,000 fully completed cards - and the prize was just a £10 book token.

There was another competitor for Ceefax - ITV also had its own teletext service called Oracle (standing for Optional Reception of Announcements by Coded Line Electronics) and there was always a race between the two services to see who could get something to air first.

A new system was installed to handle the transmission of Ceefax pages with the main computer standing in the corner of the production office.

McIntyre named the machine Esmeralda and she turned out to be a somewhat fickle and contrary soul who had a habit of refusing to work on a regular basis.

This called for someone to push the re-boot button on her control panel which shut the system down and re-started it - a process that could take up to five or six minutes to complete.

More from the Magazine

Xmas page

Take a step back in time - cheesy music and all - into the multi-coloured teletext archives.

The record number of re-boots in a single day stood at just over 240 before the problem was finally solved.

Eventually, in the late 1970s, British computer systems company Logica was given the task of building a whole new production, transmission and management system that proved both successful and durable.

Shortly thereafter, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher attended a special function to announce the production of the millionth teletext-equipped television.

From its small beginnings, British standard teletext eventually percolated out across the whole world with services appearing on the signals of national broadcasters and independent stations as far apart as Malaysia, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, Hungary, Switzerland, South Africa, Australia and even the Soviet Union.

For those who worked on the service in those pioneering early days, the final switch-off of the last teletext signal in the UK will be greeted with some sadness.

Ceefax last page

Here is a selection of your recollections.

I was so much of a Ceefax addict that my family knew me as 'Ceefax Morris' for much of my teens. I used to check it the first moment I woke up, as soon as I got back from school, college or work and then several times before bed. What I loved about Ceefax was the graphics, the Christmas images especially and the football coverage. I still know (and use many on the red button service) the page numbers in order that I would check: 101, 140, 302, 312, 501 and 660. RIP Ceefax, but lets hope the red button text keeps going strong.

Andrew Morris, Oswestry, Shropshire

I used to enjoy the daily letters pages, which had names like 'Chatterbox' for TV and another one for teenagers called 'The Vibe'. I seem to remember the page number 502 but I can't be sure. For a short time as a teenager I had a competition with a friend to see who could get the most letters published. I won 3-2.

Robbie Lane, Grantham, Lincolnshire

I "watched" the Paddington rail crash of 1999 on Ceefax, knowing that my husband had left home that morning to catch that very train. I had walked our sons to school as usual, but unusually I'd left my door key and mobile phone at home. Unable to get in touch with the friend who had our spare key I went to my in-laws house. There I sat on the floor watching the events unfold on Ceefax and trying to reach my husband's mobile phone. I didn't tell his parents I could only reach his voicemail. Some hours later I managed to get back into our house and picked up his message to my phone to say he had missed the train.

Helen Pighills, Abingdon, Oxfordshire

I had a Ceefax downloader and wrote one of the first ever share price monitoring applications using Ceefax and Pascal on my BBC model B computer back in 1987. It became part of my HND in Software Engineering end of year projects. It was great fun to program with and I long for the days when applications could be so simple.

Colin Larcombe, Orleans, France

My dad took me into a TV shop and showed me the Teletext working. To me, and perhaps to him, it was a magical thing. It seemed like all the worlds news could be there when we wanted it. And it didn't break its promise, which seems pretty unusual in its own right. Until the day we lost analogue I'd check Ceffax in the evening to catch up with the news and weather. And I miss it.

Terry B , London, UK

Pre-internet, Ceefax was the only way you could get the latest Grand Prix qualifying times and info. I remember one occasion they had Nigel Mansell's nationality as ITA!! I called the duty officer at the BBC to point this out. Ten minutes later it changed to GBR!

Paul Arnold, Bedford

Ceefax was also used to support the BBC's Computer Literacy Project with pages in the 700 range backing up various programmes on the subject. Those with a BBC Microcomputer and the additional Teletext adapter could download software from Ceefax. Back then, this seemed like witchcraft, but is now commonplace for any computer connected to the Internet.

Paul Dunning, Chelmsford

And so the generation where every man, not at a football ground come 16:45 on a Saturday clambers round the nearest High Street TV shop, to watch a TV with page 304 and the First Division/Premier league results. Memories of a bygone age.

Carl Neville, Reading

Requiescat in pace, Ceefax. We ex-ORACLE journalists always respected you.

Sam Brady, TV critic of ITV's ORACLE service, Wallasey

Loved Ceefax! Followed football and cricket matches "ball-by-ball" on it, read the chess pages almost every day (btw picture is of English Grandmasters Jonathan Speelman and Julian Hodgson, both future world class players, now veterans!) and remember Ceefax unit at Logica when I worked there in the eighties. Will be sadly missed.

Chris Howell, Redhill, England

I used one of the early external set-top decoder boxes, still have it somewhere. It's about the size of a small video cassette recorder - another outmoded article - with infra-red R/C. Connexts to the tv at UHF by aerial signal loop-through. Still working well. No memory in it so you had to wait aeons for the page to come round. But in a remote area with no daily papers etc it was a very useful system. And I won one of the competitions - a wildlife quiz brought a book one Christmas

AJ Bullock, Gloucester

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