Remembering Beltel

In the beginning there was Beltel, and it was not good, come to think of it, it wasn’t really too bad.

Beltel was a text based BBS (Similar to the UK’s Prestel) which was operated by Telkom in the days before the Internet. Originally used with modems capable of the unheard of speeds of 75 Baud (and later 300 Baud), it gradually became more refined as the time passed. It used its own proprietary Dos based software called PCBel (which was available from Beltel sales in Roggebaai) and had a number of followers, especially as a chat client (FROGG) (these are the preinternet days). Telkom  also provided a dedicated Beltel terminal called a Minitel (possibly under licence) which came complete with VDU and fold down screen with an internal modem

Beltel Mintel

Besides being used as a chat client Beltel also boasted a very primitive form of electronic banking, as well as really handy things like postal code lookups, movie schedules,  telephone directories, games and client “webpages” which were available. Naturally pornography was prevalent (in 8 bit format naturally) and a number of adult stores maintained primitive catalogues through Beltel (Score in Durban comes to mind).

At one point Beltel had 65000 active users and  over 150 service and information providers, but as the Internet became more popular one of the service providers on Beltel (Interlink) offered a portal onto the Internet and it was through these pages that we had our first glimpse of the text only World Wide Web (through a Lynx browser).  I used to access Beltel with my XT computer and a 300 baud modem that had been thrown out at work and the banking app was the one I used the most, but a group of us eventually gathered in a chatroom and formed quite a good community until it was shut down by an overzealous sysop.  When Interlink opened that internet door I was fascinated as I had been reading about it at work and was really eager to see what was available in the wide world outside.

Early IBM PC at the London Science Museum

Inevitably on 31 December 1999 Beltel was shut down as its user base left for the net and it
was eventually replaced by Telkom’s Cybertrade portal. The PCBel V3 booklet/Ready Reference Card is dated 1992, and I expect that there was a version 4.13 (Windows version?) somewhere along the line too.

Beltel is long gone, but occasionally you can still find Minitel’s at fetes and junk shops. And, up until recently Telkom still had a webpage about Beltel. It served a purpose, and for many of us we cut our teeth on it. I made quite a few friends in the chatrooms, and we all migrated to the internet eventually. Somehow though I miss the simplicity of Beltel and the net before it became the haven for spam, porn, popups, cheap thrill, social networking popunders and rubbish.

And talking about XT computers, the image of the computer has a pair  of 5¼” floppy drives in it. My XT had a single 3½ floppy and was quite adequate for what I used it for. I would eventually upgrade it to a 20MB Seagate ST-225 Hard Disk and had ample space for my data and software. 

3½” stiffy, 5¼” half height floppy, 5¼” full height floppy

Seagate4 ST-225 20M HDD

Those were really the days of computing by the seat of your pants. That Seagate cost a pretty penny and there was no easy way to format it either, and if there were more than 21 defects on the drive it was rendered unusable and had to be replaced. The MTBF was 100,000 Power-on hours with a service lief of 5 years. 

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