08/09/2017

Online shopping predicted in 1971



You might think online shopping is newish but in fact it was predicted 46 years ago by Peter Fairley who was the science editor for ITV’s version of `Radio Times` which was called `TV Times`. He didn’t call it online shopping of course but he did pen the article when many were lamenting the demise of small family shops as supermarkets started to take over. What he describes may sound a bit odd but essentially he is talking- in 1971- about what a lot of us do now which is order shopping in a device from the comfort of our homes. 
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The “device” he describes as a wooden box with 22 buttons on it. Nobody ever got round to making a wooden PC unfortunately, but anyway you insert a plastic `Communications Identity Card` into the box and then press the appropriate buttons to bring up picture of items which you then select. However clunky this box sounds, Fairley’s article is often stunningly prescient as he talks about the rise of huge supermarkets and corresponding demise of specialist shops. He even describes shops that stay open till 10 or 11 at night to cope with shoppers whose jobs mean they work odd hours. “People want food with less bother” he accurately predicts. He even predicts the demise of cash though is a long way out as he reckons it’ll happen in the 1980s and it’s still here yet its use is now in decline.
Best of all he even talks about “a communications link” that will allow TV, phone, radio and data to be piped down one line thus enabling the box. He doesn’t quite imagine the Internet as we have it – instead his system means that pressing certain buttons on the box operates one of many cameras that are pointed at the items in the shop itself. You can spot right away the flaw in that sort of system which would mean there would need to be a separate camera for every single thing the shop sold. Anyway pressing other buttons would bring up product information and finally order the items themselves. Fairley concludes the piece by imagining that traffic will be a problem in the future with all the delivery vans clogging up the roads!
Peter Fairley and a rocket that probably wasn't his.

So who was Peter Fairley?
Born in Malaysia, he was ITN’s science correspondent and also wrote for `TV Times` and the junior version `Look-In` as well as featuring on the series Magpie. He is credited with sparking an interest in science in many younger viewers and his expertise was even added to introductory sequences for the children’s sci-fi serial Timeslip in which he explained the science behind the show’s time travelling plot. For older viewers he was a fixture of ITN News and various ITV programme covering the Apollo missions becoming known as `the face of space`.  He wrote a variety of science books including `Man on the Moon` published only three months after 1969’s historic first moon walk.

Though Peter Fairley died in 1988 a lot of his work and memorabilia has been preserved by his family in a personal archive called The Fairley Archive of Space Exploration (FASE) which promotes interest in and understanding of space exploration. Established in 2006, the archive includes material gathered over 18 years spent working with NASA including original photographs and transparencies, rare copies of film taken by lunar astronauts, press kits and souvenirs from a variety of space missions and much more. For more information on FASE go to http://www.manonthemoon.org.uk/Man_on_the_Moon/The_FASE_archive.html

Online shopping itself would take a further 23 years to become reality until in 1994 both NetMarket and the Internet Shopping Network were launched.  In 1995 Amazon launched its online shopping function, the same year eBay began. Somewhat randomly it is believed that the first ever item bought over the Internet was a copy of the Sting album `Ten Summoners Tales` sold on 11 August 1994 using a credit card. Needless to say online shopping quickly caught on and also became a boon for people wanting to call it something other than online shopping. Amongst the terms coined over the years have been; e-shopping, e-tailing, e-store, web-shop, web-store and virtual store.

Online shopping took off partly due to the ease of the process in people’s increasingly busy lives but mainly because it could offer big discounts due to a lack of shops or counter staff. This undercut physical retail with its high oncosts and hastened many a chain out of business. While the pioneers of online shopping were all uniquely virtual, companies with physical shops didn’t take long to catch on and launch their own versions. What has ultimately happened is that having seen off a lot of the opposition the remaining sites began to raise their prices, something speeded up here when the UK government closed the tax loophole they had used. Unfortunately the loser is the consumer- you didn’t have to be Peter Fairley to see that coming!

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