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The Secret History of a Fleeting Pre-Internet Digital Media Channel

As the history of digital media has become subsumed by the history of the internet, teletext remains largely forgotten. Yet like a fair-weather psychic, the technology anticipated things to come.

Under a side table in the elegant Upper West Side apartment of Ina Saltz, a design professor at the City College of New York, a taped-up box collected dust.

Until recently, the box belonged to the late Joel Azerrad, Saltz's former boss, who kept it in his attic. A former digital graphic designer for Time Teletext, an experimental pre-internet digital media platform that Time Inc. invested $25 million in the early 1980s, Saltz tore open the package and slowly lifted out memorabilia: 8-inch Datalife floppy discs, small translucent slides of neon pixel art, four low-res sample graphics of a boxer with red, blocky gloves. Haphazardly stacked were screenshots of pastel video game landscapes, a little psychedelic.

A paperweight-sized crystal ball rested on top of the various files and outdated storage devices. Frozen inside of it is a hand holding a remote pointed at a television. The TV screen read "TIME TELETEXT SERVICE" in turquoise block letters.

"We were inventing the future," Saltz remembered, handing me the orb. "It was like being at NASA and sending a rocket up."

TIME FOR THE FUTURE

In May 1979, the Associated Press ran an aspirational story titled "Teletext: Soon You'll Be Punching Buttons And Talking Back To Your TV." With unrestrained reverence, the journalist describes Bill Jones, an imaginary teletext user, navigating a list of Chinese restaurant menus on his TV monitor with a remote.

Pushing the left and right buttons granted Jones access to restaurants' phone numbers, addresses, and coupons, which appeared on his screen in a dated, blocky neon type. Jones picks a restaurant and soon routes back to teletext's main menu. From there, he peruses the weather report and some local headlines, all on his television monitor and from the comfort of his sofa.

"Though Jones is not a real person," the AP story read, "his actions are not necessarily those of a science-fiction movie."

Click to advance. Animation by Stephen Clark

Teletext, an information service for transmitting text and graphics to a television set, was, 30 years ago, slated to revolutionize information retrieval. Back then, when the average media consumer couldn't envision reading script on a screen, well-moneyed news services were exploring teletext as an ultramodern avenue for on-demand, 24/7 news delivery to living rooms across the globe.

Immediate access to stock quotes and international headlines was a sci-fi caprice that has today become a law of nature. Absentminded Yelping and indifferent glances at New York Times push notifications may now be taken-for-granted byproducts of the digital revolution. But in 1974, this user-to-information proximity was practically unfathomable, an anomaly seven years before IBM introduced its Personal Computer, the first computer of a size and price that was attractive for individual use.

Teletext, according to those who worked with it, struck technologists and journalists alike as a diviner of the tech utopia to come.

By the early 80s, the BBC, CBS, PBS, NBC, and Time Inc., through its newly-acquired Home Box Office (HBO), had all put out feelers to TV manufacturers and broadcasters investigating teletext's viability as a commercial product—with Time's investment far exceeding its peers'. Teletext's potential to accelerate the flow of information proved to be widely seductive, if not ultimately unfulfilled. Between 1981 and 1983, Time Inc. spent $25 million on its teletext experiment, hoping to facilitate around-the-clock news headlines, as well as full-blown video games on TVs across the country. In less time than it took IBM to develop its PC, the short-lived Time Teletext operation deteriorated into less than its contingent parts.

More stubborn, the BBC's teletext service went offline at 23:32:19 BST on October 23, 2012, after a 38-year run; though, like Time's, nearly every other teletext service faded into obscurity decades before with varying degrees of financial loss to hopeful media companies.

Teletext, according to those who worked with it, struck technologists and journalists alike as a diviner of the tech utopia to come.

The digital revolution happened regardless of Time Teletext, but nobody is calling it a utopia. And it's unlikely that anything we've made in the shadow of that utopia, from the endless joys and abuses of the iPhone to Twitter's instantaneous news updates, owes anything to teletext. That's not to over-inflate the comparison between teletext and the internet. Teletext's older cousin, videotex, was a more foreshadowing technology. A videotex system like Telidon, Canada's doomed pre-internet web from the late 70s, was "online" whereas teletext was a broadcast signal.

Teletext remains largely forgotten as the history of digital media has become subsumed by the history of the internet. Yet like a fair-weather psychic, teletext did anticipate things to come. Despite the technology's futility in the end, it presaged an array of features and user experiences characteristic of the modern web.

As it turns out, I am a byproduct of teletext. My parents met as young journalists at Time Teletext in the early 80s. As my dad tells it, my mother introduced herself to him in an elevator in the Time-Life building in Midtown Manhattan. He says she wore blue eyeshadow and a yellow polyester suit, which my mother denies, citing common decency. He took her to Chinatown for dinner and then to Little Italy for a cannoli. They hid their relationship for over two years, until my father proposed.

Why teletext failed is, in part, because of the sort of journalism my parents did while in Time's employ. Much like writers at today's "aggregators" like Digg and Flipboard, they did little in the way of original reporting and storytelling. In a sense, teletext fell short of the hype because it resembled bite-sized news, something we consider a feature of our current digital media ecosystem. Users found it superficial, craving more nuance.

As hand-wringing over "the end of print" coincides with the broad acceptance of 140-character news, revisiting the starry-eyed promise of teletext's most deep-pocketed experiment provides a passage back to the very impulses that brought us to where we are today.

A 'ROLODEX IN THE SKY' FOR SEEING FACTS

It was the BBC's engineers who devised the first commercial teletext service. Before they understood the potential for the technology to transmit headlines, weather reports, and sports stats, teletext's developers had intended for it to provide subtitles for the hard-of-hearing. But it soon became apparent that the service's capacity for speedy information transmission held untapped potential as a journalistic enterprise.

In 1974, the BBC launched CEEFAX ("See Facts"), a news and information teletext service that sent "pages" of text over a broadcast signal to televisions. Immediacy was its pull; never before could news readers access headlines just minutes after publication. At a time when a morning and evening newspaper dominated the news cycle, the BBC's teletext service felt disruptive to information brokers worldwide.

Entire news staffs worked around-the-clock to update national and international headlines. Local affiliate newspapers fed CEEFAX's staff more geographically-specific news: a typhoon in China, Margaret Thatcher's latest political initiative, local bridge construction during rush hour. CEEFAX caught on in UK pubs, where drunk patrons read "pages" containing hourly soccer scores on the bar television.

Viewers who wanted the teletext service, but didn't want to have to buy a new TV set could buy a set-top Teletext decoder like this Radofin unit. By 2000, well over half the TVs in the UK had the facility to view teletext. Photo: SSPL/Getty Images

At first blush, the technology appeared interactive, or two-way, by virtue of users' ability to call up teletext "pages" at their whim. (Using their remotes, users would navigate these "pages," which contained rudimentary "hyperlinks.") However, teletext's interactivity was superficial: 150 or so "pages" were looped as part of a so-called "Rolodex in the sky." 

For example, when a user requested page "136"—perhaps the next page in a news story—she would have to wait between five and 30 seconds for the page to be "caught" in the cycle and broadcasted on-screen by the requisite teletext decoder, which was either integrated into the TV or self-contained as a set-top box, as media historian David Weaver explains in Videotext Journalism, his book on teletext. Upon release, CEEFAX broadcasted a mere 24 pages of content, decked out in blocky typeface and bold primary colors.

The black, wide line that often appears between television frames—the vertical blanking interval of a TV broadcast—carried CEEFAX, as well as most other teletext services. Out of the hundreds of lines used to make a television picture, at that time, just a couple—the interval—lay dormant on each frame.

"The interval was basically a rest period so the TV picture tube system could have time to get from the bottom of the screen to the top and start drawing the next field," explained John Lopinto, Time Teletext's former vice president of technology. Teletext information, essentially, was hidden in the normal television signal. Prior to teletext, the vertical blanking interval was an underutilized information canal, used merely for closed captioning data and test signals.

But early on, engineers recognized another structural possibility that would rapidly increase teletext's capacity for publishing content beyond a couple dozen "pages." Gambling millions of dollars in the process, Time Inc. was the only media company bold and rich enough to develop teletext into the headiest possible dimension of information technology at the time.

Read more: The Original Net Artists

Flush with money and a financial incentive to trailblaze, Time Inc. aspired to peddle more than just magazines in the early 70s. In November 1972, a Time subsidiary launched HBO. And in 1974, as the cable industry slowly gained momentum, HBO began using satellite broadcasts to transmit news, sports, and other programming through its national satellite distribution network. This new commercial-free cable channel, predictably, made a killing—apparently, more than the magazine group by the late 70s, according to Sean McCarthy, the former president of Time Video Information Services. But instead of launching another magazine with the hoarded cash, HBO and Time Inc. put down a stack of chips on evolving digital technologies.

Lopinto, an engineer, joined HBO in April 1979. His boss called him into his office one day and asked what he knew about teletext. CBS, Lopinto's former employer, had made moves toward developing a teletext service during his time there, though he had not worked on it. Lopinto's boss told him that was close enough and sent him off to a teletext demo in St. Louis, where he was to be "HBO's guy on teletext." That was his first time viewing the service.

"The top half of the screen was all these dancing dots, 1s and 0s," Lopinto told me. "1s were in color and 0s were black. You'd see this confetti. That was the teletext signal."

Click to advance. Animation by Stephen Clark

Major broadcast players, including CBS, PBS, and NBC also sent representatives to the St. Louis demonstration, where they networked with television equipment manufacturers from around the world peddling teletext decoders, the set-top boxes that would translate teletext data onto TV screens. At the time, Lopinto said, teletext services were using the two vertical blanking signals of an over-the-air broadcast to transmit text and graphics instead of all 262 lines of data, unable or unwilling to sacrifice a channel of normal television programming. This limited the number of "pages" that could be transmitted.

"The cable industry had a unique advantage over over-the-air broadcast," Lopinto explained, "because we could use the underlying technology of a television signal not to transmit television programming but to transmit a full field of teletext data, all 262 lines."

Instead of the typical 150 pages, the full-page cable service could broadcast thousands of pages many times faster than an over-the-air broadcast. This would place Time Inc. eons ahead of the pack in terms of information carrying capacity, as well as speed. Reeling with ambition, the company leased a full satellite channel from HBO, which in 1980 had a few to spare. In 1981, Time Inc. and Owl Labs, a now-defunct Connecticut company, developed a teletext decoder comprising a processor equivalent to that of a contemporary IBM PC's.

"This was something the promoters early on said teletext could do, except we were the only ones doing it," Lopinto said.

That same year, Time Inc. placed an ad in The New York Times advertising jobs at its new media venture. Gary Zamchick saw the ad and remembers walking into the Time-Life building on 6th Avenue with his portfolio under his arm. After the interview, Time Teletext's art director and Ina Saltz's former boss, Joel Azerrad, offered Zamchick a job. In response, Zamchick, then a 24-year-old artist with no experience using computers, asked for a bold $16,000.

"Okay, we'll give you $25,000," Azerrad countered, as Zamchick recalled. It was Zamchick's first job.

Next Dimension

An ad from original Time Teletext promotional materials.

Time Inc. launched a subsidiary to oversee its teletext experiment, Time Video Information Services, and populated it with a motley assortment of employees who, like Zamchick, were willing to weed-whack their way through the inception of digital media. Their attempt to wrestle the technology to the ground was to be no more than a tryout, a wildly expensive test, for a limited and privileged audience.

McCarthy and veteran Time reporter Don Sider brought journalists from local papers around the country together alongside engineers, graphic designers, advertising specialists, and even a few early video game developers. (Atari released Pong in 1972 and its home console three years later.) Time Teletext's employees were predominantly twentysomethings and had still never even seen a computer, on which they would be typing out news stories and welding together pixel graphics.

Time Teletext "had everything today's new media companies have except the internet," Lev Grossman and Declan McCullagh, two former Time Teletext employees, wrote in "The Future is Here, and it isn't Teletext," a 1998 post-mortem piece on the enterprise. (Grossman and McCullagh's paper was published by another failed Time Inc. media venture, Netly News.) "The hubris, the idealism, the loopy, immature technology, the insane work hours, money wagered and money lost."

The exhilaration of broadening the limits of many fields at the same time, from journalism to graphic design, on the bleeding edge of a bleeding edge technology, lent Time Teletext employees a singular rush that many told me they have yet to experience again. Testing the reach of their trades' capabilities, and under the auspices of the exalted Time Inc., a great creative momentum inflated their egos. And, in turn, their trust in the viability of teletext beyond a sci-fi detail.

"It was a heady feeling," Saltz said.

Click to advance. Animation by Stephen Clark

On the 5th floor of the Time-Life building, McCarthy assembled his new staff and explained the mission. Company researchers anticipated two to three hours of daily teletext usage along prospective consumers. The principal topics of interest would be world and national news, followed by entertainment and guides. Early promotional materials depicted a hand grasping a chrome television remote, framed by the futuristic promise: "Turn your home TV screen into a personal information center." It was 1981.

"The idea eventually became sending a stream of 1s and 0s into the home to inform and entertain," McCarthy told me decades later. "I thought it was a long shot."

Those were still exciting times, but even then McCarthy's giddiness was tempered with a dose of reality. He told his assembled staff that Time Teletext's initiative could go the way of Corfam, a short-lived synthetic leather shoe company that burned through $100 million in the span of a few years. It was like bringing up any one of the failed, costly startups that have contributed to the brutal ethos of Silicon Valley, right after a team of developers had been assembled. Teletext was flying by night.

"It was basically a technology in search of a market," McCarthy said.

GAME OVER

In late 1982, 5,000 households in California and Florida were wired for Time Teletext service. The homes were to be test groups, the exclusive benefactors of an inflated digital media technology. The Orlando Sentinel and the San Diego Tribune, both of which partnered with Time Teletext, would act as feeds for local news. According to a post-mortem report put together by Time Inc. in 1984, the company advertised its teletext service's content as "news, weather, business, challenge, biorhythms, entertainment… and much more"; the "Next Step Interactive Television"; "Information and entertainment"; and "What you want, when you want it."

Unabashedly, Time Inc. mailed an invitation to the service to high-income households in San Diego and Orlando along with a promotional videotape. Interested parties were subjected to a screening interview over the phone.

"It was almost like Twitter," recalled Jim Pensiero, a former news editor at Time Teletext who went on to The Wall Street Journal. "Superficial. Not Pulitzer-prize-winning journalism," Pensiero acquiesced, adding that "we were on the frontier trying to wrestle the beast onto the ground."

Articles were short, with fewer than a few hundred words.

"We were on the frontier trying to wrestle the beast onto the ground"

David Spohn, another former Time Teletext news editor, noted that, in any case, "trying to read more than a few pages of it at a time would give you a headache." A trade accord between the US and China, a murder's perpetrator discovered, the day's weather—all were relegated a perfunctory sentence or two. To make up for this so-called superficiality, Time Teletext's reporters in turns worked the "Lobster shift," churning out headlines day and night for their meager test audience before skulking home in a cab at four in the morning.

Time Teletext's low capacity for nuanced news lent itself to a more bare-bones kind of reporting: covering financial markets. In partnership with a company on Wall Street, Spohn developed Time Teletext's stock quote capability. Users could tune in and look up their stock with unparalleled speed. To do this, Time needed a "mini computer about the size of a refrigerator and with the processing power of today's calculator." Spohn recalls officials at the New York Stock Exchange being troubled over this prospect. Fearful that an erroneous quote would be made public, triggering financial chaos, Sophn remembered, the NYSE mandated a 15-minute delay between the quote and its publication. "The guys in the basement"—Time Teletext's tech team—obliged, Spohn said.

Accompanying teletext's stock quotes, news blurbs, sports stats, and traffic updates were some of the first commercial computer graphics ever designed—in most cases, by artists who had never even seen computers at all. Circles, squares, triangles, and other geometric primitives formed the building blocks for nearly all teletext art, masterpieces constructed from what were essentially digital stamps. With these, artists would "poke out" illustrations with fixed shapes and in fixed colors. The work was tedious, and the colors, limited to the basics, bled into each other.

Zamchick recalled staying up the whole night during a low point in the Lebanon War poking out then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's keffiyeh in polygons. "He had that black and white intricate web," Zamchick said.

Time Teletext's graphics were so evocative, in part, to make up for the skeletal storytelling driving the news feed. As months passed, the potential for graphically-based storytelling became clear: Instead of waiting for Julia Child to come on air, teletext subscribers could tune into pixel-art cooking tutorials with accompanying animations.

"How to truss a chicken" was Zamchick's favorite. "It was bondage," he remembered, proudly. "I punched out a chicken in polygons. Then I animated the strings to go around it and pull together."

Zamchick, Saltz, and the other Time Teletext artists would store their meticulously-arranged graphics on 8-inch floppy discs, like other contemporary early computer adopters. Unlike the more ubiquitous square, plastic 3.5-inch floppy discs, the 8-inch discs were quite literally floppy. These early storage devices were so static-sensitive that if a co-worker walked by without briefly stepping on an anti-static mat, a month's worth of work could be wiped out. Teletext alumni recanted stories to me of bathroom sob sessions following mass deletions. Once, when it happened to Zamchick, he was forced to tell his boss, Time Teletext's managing editor, that he'd lost weeks' worth of work because of the static.

"He looked at me and said his favorite answer to everything: 'That's life on the frontier.'"

Time-Life

Time-Life building shrouded in fog. Photo: Rudy Sulgan/Getty

Supporting that life would come at great financial costs, but for awhile it seemed there was more than enough money to go around.

To fund Time Teletext's genre-bending innovations, oceans of money flowed through the 5th floor of the Time-Life building. Expense accounts, reportedly, were virtually unlimited. One Saturday, Time Inc. organized a beach trip to the Rockaways for Time Teletext's hundred-plus staffers. When planning the outing, Pensiero and writer Julia Lieblich realized that the budgeted $3,000 wouldn't account for champagne on the bus, wine on the beach, a lunch barbecue, and a lobster dinner before hitting the Rockaways night club. To Pensiero's recollection, Leiblich walked into McCarthy's office and asked for a thousand more dollars, to which McCarthy obliged.

"If you needed something, you got it," recalled Spohn. "We were basically not accountable as a business."

On Fridays, the entire video game staff would hit the Times Square pinball arcade on Time Inc.'s tab. One popular Time Teletext video game, Lunatic, was designed after the video game staff took an afternoon off in 1982 to see Tron. Immediately after, they purchased tickets to see Wagner's "Parsifal" at the Met.

Despite its face of frivolity, that investment in video games was one of the few worthwhile ones. Critical of the superficiality and readability of Time Teletext's news coverage, early users in San Diego and Orlando were drawn instead to an entirely new source of entertainment that had, before Teletext, barely penetrated the suburban living room. Time Teletext's test users gamed for an average 23 minutes per day, 14 more minutes than they spent on the news, according to Time Inc.'s 1984 post-mortem report.

"We thought it was going to be a news thing," Grossman and McCullagh admitted in "The Future is Here, and It Isn't Teletext". "It turns that all they wanted to do was play Lunatic."

In the final year before Time Inc. pulled the plug on its teletext moonshot, after the market data came back affirming users' unexpected passion for gaming, Time Teletext began pouring resources into its video game development. The games were primarily educational and aimed at families with young children, but with a few quizzes thrown in for good measure. Initially, developmental psychologists contracted by Time Inc. warned that 2-3 year-olds wouldn't be able to relate a remote's arrow symbol to a contingent movement on a television screen. In the basement of the Time-Life building, researchers set up a faux living room to conduct test studies for Time Teletext.

Mothers and their toddlers would sit on the couch and solve rudimentary video game puzzles or walk a character through a maze. The psychologists warned beforehand that kids were not cognitively developed enough for video games, a new technology that many adults struggled to comprehend. The children, it turned out, got the hang of gaming much faster than their mothers.

Dire Straits

'Dire Straits' ad from original Time Teletext promotional materials.

One such title was Dire Straits, a Time Teletext video game in the art deco style that ran users through a murder mystery set on a cruise liner. The game resembled interactive fiction, like a choose-your-own-ending Goosebumps novel. But perhaps the most ambitious video game project was the Outer Space Zoo.

Little boys, the games education team reasoned, like outer space. Little girls, meanwhile, like zoo animals. Immeasurably ahead of its time—a sort of proto-Neopets—the Outer Space Zoo allowed players to choose animal companions and navigate a galactic habitat. Animals would visit each other's houses, steer through puzzles, and explore the psychedelic pastel landscape, dotted with candy-colored mountains and snakelike rivers. The setting, designers had planned, would be a "serial world," where designers added new distinct zones as time passed and the user base grew.

In 1982, when Atari video game consoles were entering households en masse, downloading episodic gaming content onto a television "console" was completely unheard of. At one point, Time looked into a partnership with Atari, which had launched its model 2600 home console in September 1977 on the heels of 1972's Pong. The hardware originally sold for $199 at Sears. In its first year, Atari moved fewer than 600,000 units into living rooms internationally. After a massive surge in popularity—in 1982, Atari owned 80 percent of the video game market—Atari took a nosedive in 1983 when it bought too many 8K cartridges and was forced to dump over 14 truckloads of gaming equipment into a landfill in New Mexico. Atari lost about $500 million in just one quarter.

"It would have been hard to sell to the board," McCarthy said of the would-be Atari partnership. If Atari hadn't crashed in 1983, McCarthy contends, TimeTeletext would have successfully parlayed into the gaming business. As it stood, McCarthy said, the board at Time Inc. viewed video games as "a fad."

Click to advance. Animation by Stephen Clark

Although Time Teletext's gaming service proved immensely popular among early testers, users were disappointed by the very things that inspired its existence.

"The whole basis for Time moving into teletext was using the straight news and lifestyle content represented in magazines like People," said Bob Spielvogel, the former editor of the Learning and Games section of Time Teletext, who ran focus groups in the building's basement. "It was disconcerting for them to see that what they thought was ancillary, bonus stuff turned out to be the main draw."

Between June and November 1983, the percentage of Time Teletext-equipped households using the service dropped from 90 percent to 30 percent, according to the service's post-mortem report. Users were subjected to long wait times to access information and reported that the service failed to deliver on key benefits, such as acting as an easy alternative to TV viewing. The shallowness of information was also a source of dissatisfaction, despite the bright graphics being a powerful draw. McCarthy's premonition, that teletext would be a technology in search of an audience, had become a reality.

"Teletext failed to meet expectations," read the 1984 report.

These superficial flaws were mendable, of course. But Time Inc.'s not insignificant investment in the heady news-delivery service may have drowned out concerns about the cost of the technology. Engineers working on the set-top box, which allowed subscribers to receive the teletext service, couldn't get the hardware down to a reasonable price. Responses from the focus groups in California and Florida indicated that consumers weren't willing to pay more than $80 for the set-top box; engineers were stuck at the $140 mark. Time Teletext was, in Time Inc.'s estimation, too heavy to catch any air. On top of this, the intended subscription fee of $10 to $15 per month was at least three times what early users said they'd pay for the service.

"As they say in the video game world," McCarthy told me, "GAME OVER."

HAND OFF

During his employ at Time Inc., Spielvogel proposed to his wife. The company hosted the couple's rehearsal dinner in an executive dining room on the top floor of the Time-Life building. A number of Time Teletext employees were on hand to celebrate the couple's marriage.

The group had congealed by late 1983. Unaware of Time Teletext's poor reception among the audiences and thrilled at the prospect of mapping new territory at a time when the economics of newspapers were being called into question, Time Teletext employees, generally, were too preoccupied with advancing the technology and the content it carried to consider the financial implications of its technical shortcomings.

At the wedding, Spielvogel's boss approached him, fresh from a strategy session. She told him that the games section was a hit and that they would discuss devoting a whole channel to video games after the newlyweds returned from honeymoon. Elated and invigorated, Spielvogel and his wife took a three-week hike in New Zealand. Gary Zamchick and his girlfriend looked after Spielvogel's apartment back New York City.

When the jetlagged newlyweds returned home they found the apartment vacated. There was a note attached to a bottle of scotch that sat on a coffee table. Curious, Spielvogel opened the note.

"Before you read the rest of this note," it began, "open the bottle and take a big swig."

Time-Life building shrouded in fog. Photo: Rudy Sulgan/Getty

On October 1, 1983—halfway through Spielvogel's honeymoon—the employees of Time Teletext were called into a meeting room. Jerry Levin, the chairman of Time-Life, broke the news: The experiment had run its course in a matter of two-and-a-half years. Levin, who later orchestrated the financially disastrous merger of Time Warner and AOL in 2000, assured the staff that, while Time Inc. remained committed to forging ahead with digital publishing, teletext would have no role in the media company's future.

The the Time Teletext experiment was reported to be between $17 and $35 million, a staggering investment for questionable returns by even today's standards. Levin himself commonly cited the total cost of the project at $25 million.

Teletext's failure as both a technology and a business enterprise, a tiny explosion prefacing many more to come, fails to cast a shadow on Silicon Valley as we know it today, as billions of dollars flood "startups" bent on anticipating needs that often do not yet exist. For every Airbnb, Uber, or Spotify—companies aiming to connect users to information and resources with the least possible resistance—is a couple dozen million dollars thrown at some failure-to-launch. Our current desires as media consumers are elusive, and yet today's budding technologies seek to outpace them by decades. Rarer still are the startups that generate new desires, such as immersive 3D gaming or sepia-filtered online photo albums, and fulfill them completely.

An all-in-one entertainment and information service remains a cyber-utopian fantasy unparalleled outside of Isaac Asimov's literary machinations. But if history is any indication, investors' desire for it will burn as long as there are innovators pursuing the next breakthrough high.

Teletext, today, remains a quaint vestige of a 1980s retro-future fantasy, known in America only to scoffing technologists and a small, geeky fan base. Perhaps what teletext prefaced was not an information and entertainment service. In fact, that technology still does not exist.

"I think Time Teletext pre-visioned something early on that would happen," McCarthy said. "You know how people have an inclination of something that will happen in the future, an intuitive feeling? It's not cause-and-effect. It was like that."

McCarthy was right, even though Time Teletext's sculptors were wrong about so much else. What the pre-internet digital media platform pre-visioned happened, its technology just wasn't how we were meant to experience it.

Back in Ina Saltz's Upper West Side apartment, standing among the assorted memorabilia found in the box she inherited from Azerrad, her old boss (and which she's since turned over to the Time Inc. archive), I studied the glinting crystal ball. I found it increasingly difficult to see the tiny image of a hand holding a remote aimed at a Time Teletext TV for what it was meant to represent: someone turning on their television set. The deeper I looked, it's as if the hand, suspended in time, had been turning off the TV all along.

*A special thanks to Linda Gottfried for contributing her wisdom, memories, and archival materials.

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