Thursday, July 04, 2013

BPN 1641: The Switch to Internet in The Netherlands (2)

Life before internet

It is surprising to notice that Dutch internet nomads think that before internet there was waste land as far as online is concerned. The memorial book at the occasion of the academic network SURFnet start its introduction, saying that The Netherlands was barren as far as networks was concerned before the introduction of the academic network [ii].  However, almost a history of more than twenty years of online activity has been forgotten either by the absence of the knowledge or by very selective perception of history.

The beginning of new media in 1967 in The Netherlands has been pinned down to the start of a study to use a computer in the editorial process of the international, scientific publishing house, Excerpta Medica, initiated by Dr Pierre Vinken (photograph: 3rd person from the left), a neurologist and later CEO of Reed-Elsevier. The editorial staff of Excerpta Medica abstracted articles and published them per medical discipline in magazines, provided with keywords, which were fitted in a hierarchical keyword system on cards, a thesaurus. The computer was seen as an assistant in processing the editorial workflow and the consistency of keywords and it would speed up the printing process. Besides for the future it would offer the creation of new abstract magazines and digital derivatives such as magnetic tape services and online information services. By 1969 the system was up and running, while the knowledge gained by the computer department was used in a large reference work project The Great Spectrum Encyclopaedia[iii] and, partly, in the academic library project PICA.


Search in the Kluwer legal database (ASCII)

From 1967 onwards it was a period of experimenting in a developing online world. Computer technology and telecom technology were combined into services, offering access to text and numerical databases by keyboards and dumb terminals. Central computer systems with databases could be remotely accessed and searched. As transfer protocol between the central computer and the devices, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) was used; searching in the databases was command driven. The technology for database services were developed were developed in the USA in the early seventies of last century and the technology was transferred to Europe soon after.
Commercial information services for business analysts and scientists such as SDC and Dialog came into existence and Excerpta Medica as well as some Dutch governmental services started to deliver (ASCII) abstract databases and updates to those services.  By 1975 the first serious investment into database publishing was made by the publishing company Kluwer, which started to develop a legal database from 1975 onwards.


The ASCII database services were centred around mini-computers, computer devices and from 1977 onwards on personal computers. In Europe however another online technology, named videotext[iv], was developed by the British Post Office (BPO). By using the television set as a delivery station, access was gained to a central computer. While ASCII databases were line driven, videotex was page oriented, presenting a screen page of 24 lines of 40 digits, delivering text in seven colours. The information was structured like a tree with pages in numerical levels from 0 to 9. The use of television in combination with the telephone and the screen pages were seen as an advantage to reach small business enterprises and residential population. Stimulated by the emerging European Community, many postal organisations started to experiment with the technology.
In The Netherlands there was a first viewing of the system in 1976. It was only in 1978 that the technology was shown during a Dutch consumer electronics fair FIRATO and aroused some excitement among a number of companies. Given the reactions by companies the Dutch post organisation PTT announced the start of the service Viditel for 1980 later in the year. At the same time the Dutch publishing company VNU created a videotext consultancy TVS as it saw a threat for its jbo advertisements in the system for its controlled circulation weeklies.

PC services for amateurs

The trend of PC services for amateurs such as Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and consumer ASCII services like CompuServe in the USA, well known for their e-mail services at the end of the seventies, did not catch on hold in The Netherland till the mid-eighties.

Professional users

From the early beginning of online information services worldwide Dutch professional users had started to use the services for mainly financial inquiries or scientific research. They used mainly American services like Reuters, Dialog, SDC and BRS. European scientific databases were made available by the European Space Agency as well as British and French services. These professionals were usually employed by and searching as an intermediary on behalf of multinational companies or universities. In 1977 they established a professional association of Dutch intermediaries (VOGIN), published a book on search techniques in 1981 and set up a training program.

[i]   Geert Lovinck (2011), My First Recession: Critical Internet Cultures in Transition. Nai Publishers.

[ii]  Verhoog, Jeroen (2008), SURFnet 1988-2008: twintig jaar grensverleggend netwerken. SURFnet.
[iii] The Great Spectrum Encyclopaedia by the publishing house Het Spectrum, a VNU subsidiary, prepared format for the Academic American Encyclopaedia, published in print and experimentally online in 1980 by ArĂȘte Publishing, a VNU subsidiary. In 1982 an interactive version was published on a videodisk and shown at the Frankfurt Book Fair. By 1985 the  Academic American Encyclopaedia was sold to the US publisher Grolier and produced in print and an on CD-ROM.
[iv] Videotex is the general term for the technology initially using a television set as delivery station. The term viewdata has also been used early in the development but had to be cancelled due to a brand name registration conflict.  

Instalment 3:  Commercial online services and offline products

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