In all the talk about digital inclusion, it is perhaps surprising to discover that it was a grandmother from Gateshead who pioneered online shopping from her living room way back in the early 1980s.
As part of a council initiative to help the elderly, Mrs Jane Snowball, 72, sat down in an armchair in her Gateshead home in May 1984, picked up a television remote control and used it to order the groceries from her local Tesco.
“What we effectively did was to take a domestic TV in a home and turn it into a computer terminal,” says Michael Aldrich, the man behind the technology for the system. “That was the big leap.”
It was years before the world wide web came into being. And not until the early 1990s that the major retailers set up their online stores.
Looking at the footage of the Gateshead experiment, what is most striking is the ease with which Mrs Snowball used the technology. The interface was very simple. Mrs Snowball never saw a computer – she was given a standard television with the chip set and a remote control with an additional button on it that said “phone”. Pressing the button brought up a directory of retailers on the TV screen in the format of a standard teletext page. She would choose a retailer and then the goods. It took just 15 minutes to teach her how to use the system. Michael Aldrich explains: “It worked very well… and she could just turn off the computer and go back to watching Coronation Street.”
Nearly 30 years later, perhaps it is time to reinvent the domestic television as the means to engage older people in technology. It is familiar,inclusive, found in every living room and potentially the key to making sure all older people are truly connected to the world around them.
The story of Mrs Snowball featured in BBC Business editor Robert Peston’s series about shopping in Britain since World War II, “Robert Peston Goes Shopping”. For more details, CLICK HERE Image courtesy of the Michael Aldrich Archive