Instagram Meets Telidon

The Telidon Art Collection at Inter/Access

Marin Balabanov

Chapter 3. Authority Report: The History of Telidon 1978–1985

"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
- T.S. Eliot, The Rock

Before Telidon was even a sparkle in anyone's synapses, Canada's Communications Research Centre (CRC) was born.

The origins of the CRC go back to the early days of the Royal Canadian Navy and the National Research Council (NRC). The Department of National Defense (DND) formed a Canadian committee for radio wave propagation in which the Radio Propagation Laboratory (RPL) was formed to provide technical advice. RPL was founded during World War II in response to a request for assistance from the Office of Naval Research (ONRC) by Queen Elizabeth II in the fight against the submarine fleet of Nazi Germany.[14] The Canadian government was asked to investigate ionospheric conditions that affected the transmission of radio waves.[15]

After World War II, the RPL became part of the Defense Research Board (DRB), which was founded in 1947 as a merger of several military research laboratories. F.T. Davies, J.C.W. Scott, and J.H. Meek are regarded as the founding fathers of both the Defence Research and Telecommunications Institute (now the Communication Research Centre) and the National Research Council.[16]

When the Radio Propagation Laboratory (RPL) was founded, it was housed at the Naval Headquarters in Ottawa. In 1947, the unit was moved to a building provided by the Navy and then to the Royal Canadian Air Force's research laboratory.

In 1949, an additional building to accommodate the scientific staff enabled the concentration of RPL personnel on Prescott Highway. Although the building no longer exists, a plaque commemorates its place.

According to the historical organization "Friends of CRC" and their article "A Brief History of CRC," the elevator shafts were completely lined with copper sheets to minimize internal electrical disturbances. Huge copper umbrellas were buried in the ground and stretched thirty to forty meters along the walls on both sides to ensure the grounding of the whole building.

Soon provisional huts were built, which were to be used as laboratories until a permanent building could be erected. After many delays, the new laboratory was unofficially taken over by a contractor in September 1952 and occupied by employees. At the same time, the Defence Research and Electronics Laboratory housed a number of working groups in Rockliffe, Ottawa.

In what seemed to be an effort to reuse as many existing three-letter acronyms as possible, the Canadian government selected the site for the new laboratory on the location of the old Radio Physics Laboratory in Vancouver, British Columbia, which also had the acronym RPL. The building and electronics laboratory were officially opened on June 13, 1952. In 1951, the RPL, which was renamed to the Radio Physical Laboratory, became the Defence Research and Telecommunications Institute (DRTE) and merged with a smaller body dealing with communications equipment issues. Davies was the chief superintendent, and Dr. J.R.A. "J.B." Clements, a professor at the University of B.C., was chief of staff.

At that time, the work of the RPL included the design, construction, and operation of radios, as well as the development of communication devices. The electronics laboratory consisted of two buildings, one in the basement and the other on the ground floor of an office building.[17]

The RPL was originally located on an experimental farm but was moved in 1952 to a new site in Shirleys Bay, Ontario, where radio interference within the city limits was negligible. CRC has remained at this location and has expanded it over the years. Today, its neighbors include companies such as Nortel, Alcatel, and Mitel.[18]

The success of these activities continues to make the Communications Research Centre (CRC) proud, and for several years the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment's (DRTE) activities were shaped by a project of major proportions to build and deploy the scientific satellite "Alouette-1," initiated in 1958 — the first project of its kind in Canada.[19]

Alouette-1 was launched into space in 1962. Thus, after the Soviet Union and the USA, Canada became the third country in the world to launch an object into space.

In the late 1960s, Dr. John H. Chapman wrote a document known as the Chapman Report recommending that Canada should have its own communications satellite network. This report influenced the decision to establish the Department of Communications (DOC) and Telesat Canada. DRTE staff, construction resources, and programs were transferred to the new department, which became its research area. The government put the DOC in charge of existing satellite programs, such as Alouette and ISIS, and supported Telesat Canada with background research and development.[20]

The CRC's new mandate focused on civil communications, but it continued to support the DND's research and development in the telecommunications sector by operating within the framework of its technical program, an agreement that is still in effect.[21]

The Telidon Timeline
1978 Telidon project announced
1979 Telidon 699 specifications
1980 Field trials begin
1982 Telidon 709 specifications
1983 Telidon 709 formalized as NAPLPS
1985 Government withdraws funding
1985 - 1992 Various commercial NAPLPS services, Prodigy, BBSs, etc.

Table 1: Timeline of Telidon Development and Trials. Source: VCF Pacific Northwest 2019, John Durno, The Lost Art of Telidon. A presentation at Vintage Computer Festival Pacific Northwest, March 24, 2019. (retrieved on March 2, 2020)

The Birth of Telidon

The Telidon program officially began on August 15, 1978 and ended on March 31, 1985.

More than a decade before the official beginning of the Telidon program, Herb Bown started developing the first proto-network in 1966. By 1967 he had implemented advanced graphical plotting capabilities. Brown is widely regarded as the father of Telidon. The objective of the system was to promote the development of a viable industry around this new telecommunications technology and promote the manufacture of Canadian hardware, software, systems, and services. The CRC wanted to encourage the establishment of an international network for the production and distribution of telecommunications equipment, services, equipment, and products that far exceeded the national borders of Canada.[22]

The first and most obvious partner nation to promote this high-quality telecommunications infrastructure was the USA. At that time, many countries seized the chance to develop their national Videotex infrastructure with appropriate standards, regulations, and technologies.[23] France was in the final phases of rolling out its Minitel system that would go on to achieve great success in the 1980s.[24]

Figure 6

Figure 6: An end user's Telidon terminal: A TV attached to a decoder, which was, in turn, attached to a telephone. The user operated the wired remote control. Source: Friends of CRC. (retrieved on March 2, 2020)

Brown's goal was to create a flexible workplace that would allow designers to draw and manipulate circuits and spacecraft on a screen. The system would display information from satellites, computers, and human operators in graphical and numerical form. Brown's research began when computer graphics emerged as an independent discipline, with ingenious systems that allowed images of the structure of circuits to be displayed on cathode ray tubes and then manipulated with text and numbers. Brown's research broke new ground by integrating plotting capabilities into the CAD programs he developed so that the results of computer calculations could be displayed on paper before they were executed.[25]

This work by Brown and his colleagues laid the groundwork and showcased the full potential of this interactive visual telecommunications technology if it received sufficient funding and industry focus. The seed out of which Telidon would sprout was planted.[26]

Figure 7

Figure 7: Teletext Decoder and Page Selection Transmitter for Videotex Services via cable. Source: CRC Technical Note No. 697-E (redrawn by the writer of this essay)

The Development of Telidon

Since the 1970s, efforts have focused on building hardware and software to improve their interactive and graphical capabilities. In 1975, CRC commissioned Norpak to develop an interactive color display technology. This order led to the development of the Telidon 699 coding scheme for interactive telecommunications terminals and Picture Description Instructions (PDI). Telidon terminals were the first of their kind in North America. These were bespoke, expensive machines built at a high cost. They were exponentially more expensive than the gestating home computers of the day. At the start, at least, they were far more capable. The hardware, as well as various communication protocols, evolved and improved over time. Each new Telidon terminal had greater capabilities than the last and spawned a variety of new applications.

Developers found it inappropriate to design an image as a coding scheme tied to a particular screen technology. As a result, they defined a scheme that encoded the Picture Description Instructions (PDI) as a combination of two different color schemes, one for the television screen and the other for a computer screen.[27] At the end of 1977, CRC's research in the field of interactive graphics systems led to the development of a computer-controlled graphic display for Telidon terminals.

Figure 8

Figure 8: A CRC Employee using a Telidon Page Creation Terminal. Source: Friends of CRC. Telidon. (retrieved on February 21, 2020)

Telidon artists worked on large Norpak Page Creation Terminals. These machines were the size of a calf and were not originally designed for art. They were appropriated from hardware and software used for Computer-Aided Design (CAD). Some used light pens, which the artists held up to the massive tube display to draw points and connect them.

Other terminal types had a graphics tablet lying flat on the desk in front of the display. Artists used a pen on the tablet to draw while looking at the display to see what their remote hand that held the pen was drawing.[28]]

There was one thing that was very limited or perhaps not available to artists at all —something obvious that is a matter of course in today's media and art production. They had no digital photography and no way to digitize video.

This meant that artists had to create all of their art purely digitally. Every line, every area, every dot had to be placed by hand.

The resulting images produced by a Norpak or Microtel decoder had a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels with up to eight colors and eight shades of gray and in their expanded model a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels.

In an interview for Vice Motherboard decades later, one of the Telidon artists, Nell Tenhaaf, described working with Telidon as "a bit of a struggle... you had to be a real graphic artist to figure it out... how would you make a portrait of a face or anything..."[29]

Figure 9

Figure 9: Telidon code translated into an image. Source: John Durno's presentation on The Lost Art of Telidon at the Vintage Computer Federation Pacific Northwest 2019 (redrawn by the writer of this essay). (retrieved on February 21, 2020)

Meet the Simple Competition: Teletext

The Teletext technology that had been developed in other countries in parallel was a one-way information delivery system designed to use existing television channels. Specifically, it encoded information into the part of the TV image that lies outside of the viewable area of a regular screen. Teletext could display 100 to 300 pages of screen information. Due to its inherent simplicity, Teletext as an information system piggybacking on existing TV technology was best suited for fast and broad adoption by television producers and TV stations in the US.

When Teletext broke through to the mainstream, there were some simple forms of interactivity, but essentially Teletext only provided stacks of "pages" that were the size of a TV screen with a limited amount of text and graphics on them. Users could use their remote control to jump to other pages. This allowed for simple "choose your own adventure"-like games where a user would be given two choices. By choosing one of them, they would be forwarded to a new page and be set on a slightly different path.

Users could only check flight and train schedules, but they could not book air travel or train tickets. Users could only read the current stock prices that were available to any other user, but they could not check their own bank account, as Teletext could only deliver the same content to all users.

Figure 10

Figure 10: A preserved Telidon Terminal. Source: Personal Computer Museum. (retrieved on March 12, 2020)

At the very beginning, Teletext even had slightly better graphics than Telidon at that time. A Teletext image was composed of crude pixels in jarring colors, but it harkened to the limitations of the TV screen. Telidon had greater graphical potential, but it also had a lot of catching up to do.

Meet the Complex Competition: Videotex

Meanwhile, videotex was a far more complex system in development. It was an information delivery system that used a telephone as a means of two-way telecommunication. It could even be used for an early form of electronic mail and could be connected to a computer. It was not tied to the telephone, as this technology could be adapted to receive a signal from a TV or radio station, albeit with far reduced capabilities.

Videotex is a system that provides interactive content and displays it on a video monitor such as a TV, generally using a modem to send data in any direction. From the late 1970s to the early 2010s, it was used to transmit information (usually text or pages) to the user via a a regular television (and later alternatively a personal computer).

Figure 11

Figure 11: Cover of Byte Magazine, July 1983, featuring Videotex. Source: Centre for Computer History. (retrieved on April 27, 2020)

Videotex was a close relative of Teletext in terms of technology and user experience.

Theoretically, Videotex could include video, audio, video-on-demand, and even mobile telephony services, but, in reality, it is simply a form of teletext only with a different name. Videotex only found use in few niche applications. By the 1990s, any practical application of Videotex was widely supplanted by the mainstream adoption of the World Wide Web.

Telidon Strikes

When Telidon terminals that were trialed, they were far more complex than Teletext or Videotex. They consisted of a modified television receiver, a computer, and a television or radio station, as well as an electronic postal system.

The user could access information from a multitude of information providers, such as location, time, date, and location of the device, as well as other information such as telephone number and address. The user operated the wired remote control keypad. Their inputs would be relayed to a decoder that was attached to the phone line. That, in turn, connected to the Telidon servers. When the requested content was ready and delivered to the user, the decoder would output it on the TV attached to the decoder.

Figure 12

Figure 12: A Telidon Terminal Converter by Norpak that was attached to the TV on one end and the telephone on the other end. The phone connected to the server and the converter translated the data into graphics displayed on the TV. Source: Tom Alföldi, 1985; Ingenium Canada. (retrieved on February 14, 2020)

The first Telidon terminal was publicly demonstrated on August 15, 1978, and the Ministry of Communications announced the development of a new public-private partnership program (DOC) to use the technology. As part of this program, the DOC envisaged opportunities to encourage the private sector and government to use Telidon technologies. This included lobbying to negotiate the Videotex standard and formulating a strategy to deal with the social and political impact of new technologies, as well as the creation of an international network of telecommunications companies.

The Canadian government acted as a catalyst to bring the various elements of Telidon into a functioning industrial infrastructure. In cooperation with Bell Canada, Norpak, and Microtel, the main objective was to promote the development of a public-private partnership between the state and the private sector in the telecommunications sector.[30]

To support the field trials, the Department of Communications purchased application terminals and loaned them to organizations to develop for Telidon. In some cases, the department also provided its central data center, and in other cases, its own servers.[31]

In 1983, AT&T Bell Systems and the DOC expanded Telidon's Picture Description Instruction (PDI) standard to become Telidon 709 (the basis for NAPLPS). While the field trials used telephone lines for the transfer of data, the DOC encouraged the use of a wide range of transmission media - not only phone lines but also cable and even the terrestrial television signal.

More than 200 companies were involved in the government's Telidon program, and a large part of the industrial activities was implemented with state support.[32]

Exhibitions During the Active Years of Telidon

Already in the early 1980s, Telidon and its potential for art came to the attention of Canadian artist and curator Glenn Howarth. He discovered the value of the artwork produced by the artists in the Telidon trial after meeting University of Victoria faculty members who had worked on developing Telidon, Dr. David Godfrey in Creative Writing and Dr. Ernest Chang in Computer Science.[33]

Figure 13

Figure 13: Glenn Howarth (b. Vegreville, A.B. 1946; d. Victoria, B.C. 2009). Source: University of Victoria Legacy Art Galleries. (retrieved on April 27, 2020)

Howarth took the existing Telidon art pieces and exhibited them across Canada. He even featured an exhibition of Telidon art at the Sāo Paulo Biennale in 1983, the 17th Bienal de Sāo Paulo. Part of the Biennale was an exhibition of early video art, particularly videotex art. Just looking at the Biennale's catalog (Catálogo Geral) shows the vast differences between videotex art and the pieces produced on Telidon systems. Even in the black and white photos, the Telidon art had a level of detail and sophistication that exceeded videotex.[34]

This is regarded as the peak of international recognition for Telidon art.

Howarth worked together with Godfrey and Chang to create a low-cost Telidon content creation terminal based on the Apple II (the disks in his estate are all in the Apple II disk format).

Figure 14

Figure 14: Cover of the 1983 Sāo Paulo Biennale and the Telidon page (page 121). Source: 17ª Bienal de São Paulo (1983) - Catálogo geral da 17ª Bienal de São Paulo (1983) Idiomas: português / inglês. Published online on July 1, 2009. (retrieved on April 24, 2020)

Despite the great interest in Telidon art during the exhibitions, Howarth became disillusioned with the limitations of the medium and the lack of progress in Telidon. His last Telidon-related exhibition was in 1986 in Vancouver.[35]

Glenn Howarth passed away in 2009, and in the late 2010s, the University of Victoria Archives started putting together a retrospective of his work. In his estate, Howarth left ten boxes with materials related to Telidon. These included actual disks containing files. The files would later prove to be invaluable for the preservation and reconstruction of Telidon on modern-day systems and for current audiences (see 6. Electric Conservation: NAPLPS Graphics on Modern Hardware).

The Twilight Years of the Telidon Trial

One of the fundamental problems facing the hardware industry in terms of commercial development was the high price of systems, which ranged from $1,800 to $2,500. The largest suppliers of terminals were Norpak and Microtel, but in the early stages of development, hardware manufacturers felt that demand would push terminal prices so low that they would ideally sell for less than $600. However, the results of field trials suggested that retail prices were likely to remain out of reach for most shoppers.

In addition, field trials have shown that people were interested in the technology in principle, but were disappointed with the range of services and software offered. The process indicated that it would require at least two years of continuous testing and development to achieve any solid level of satisfaction.[36]

The field trials also showed that many technical improvements were needed, such as better hardware with more powerful processors to offer better interactivity and more usability in the services (not that usability was a word back in the early 1980s). To add insult to injury, home computers like the Apple II and the Commodore 64 had been adopted by the technologically-interested masses in Canada and in the rest of the world. Not only were these machines magnitudes cheaper than the prices targeted by Norpak and Microtel, but these original stand-alone computers could be used to connect to Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) with similar services to Telidon, albeit in a more decentralized and disorganized manner.

All of these insights from the field test led to only one conclusion: The program was officially terminated on March 31, 1985, but not before the successful completion of the first test phase.[37]

The Telidon program was originally designed to develop a mass-market industry, but this goal was not achieved as field trials clearly showed that Telidon technology was better tailored as a specialized solution, e.g., for distance learning.[38]

What remained was a great hole in Canada's effort to become a world leader in telecommunications. Throughout the same timeframe, France had rolled out their highly successful Minitel system that served many of the same purposes as Telidon. It turned more into a disadvantage for France once adoption of the World Wide Web spread across the world. France was too entrenched in the use of Minitel to quickly adopt the web. Therefore, one has to wonder if it is not better this way — that Telidon did not survive and become successful. There is one undisputed success: Telidon gave a significant number of Canadians their first taste of the online world.


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