Finding Mrs Snowball
In December 2007, I was asked out of the blue; “Grandpa, did you invent internet shopping?” I thought about the question and replied, “No, but a very long time ago I was involved in something called ‘teleshopping.’ Years later it became internet shopping.” I had to think because I had long forgotten teleshopping as well as most of my business career.
When the journey began to find the history of online shopping I had no idea of the existence or relevance of Mrs Snowball, who we subsequently discovered to be the world’s first online home shopper. The starting point of the journey had been to try to reconstruct the invention of online shopping. I had searched my personal papers, old copies of ‘Information Management’ in my study and all the press cuttings I could find. The first conclusion was that I had neither a good memory nor a well-organised information base. Both were my own fault. My first task was to restore the information database to its original standard.
With the help of my wife, I recalled the invention of ‘teleshopping’ as it was then called and wrote the story. Then I remembered the world’s first Business to Business [B2B] online shopping system and the exchange of telexes when it went live. A mutual friend put me in contact with Colin Palmer who, as Commercial Director of Thomson Holidays in 1981, had been the client. He went searching his papers and eventually came up with a number of press articles. Some months later we found the original ‘Information Management’ article with the original telexes .We had solid evidence and there was optimism that we could find more. I decided, therefore, to construct a digital Archive of ‘Pioneers of Online Shopping’ that would be donated to the Aldrich Library at the University of Brighton and could be used by future generations for teaching, learning, research and scholarship.
In the meantime a great search for the pioneering online shopping projects continued and we unearthed the Ford, Peugeot-Talbot, Nissan, General Motors and Horizon Holidays stories which provided a broad view of the B2B projects. Then we had some luck. We found the City of Bradford Centrepoint story which consisted of 3 articles. The Centrepoint project ran for many years and was a pioneering program to provide public information and support services for citizens of Bradford and particularly those who were disadvantaged. It is strange how with the aid of written and photographic records it was easy to remember warmly the project and the people involved. One of the services provided through Centrepoint was ‘teleshopping’ whereby in conjunction with Wm Morrison, the large supermarket company, online shopping and home delivery for 4,000 grocery items were offered. We were excited that we had found the first Business to Consumer [B2C] online shopping.
Reading the text carefully, however, we learned that the Bradford ‘teleshopping’ was modelled on the Gateshead system! We gradually, vaguely remembered the Gateshead system. There was a lovely white haired grandmother, Tesco, a memorable name, Mrs Snowball, and a Council experimenting with services for its less advantaged citizens. But we had no documentation. We couldn’t recall her connection to the Gateshead system.
We talked to everyone we could find who might have information. We searched old cabinets and then we struck lucky. We found a black and white photocopy of an ‘Information Management’ article about teleshopping in Gateshead. It was a poor, faded copy but it had a photo of a woman identified as Mrs Jane Snowball! It raised more questions than it answered. Was she an early user of the system or was she the first user. The text of the article was too vague to be definitive. An old friend, John Aeberhard, the founder of the A+ PR consultancy, had been our PR Consultant in the 1980s and he remembered going to Gateshead with Lawrence McGinty of ITN to do a shopping piece. We contacted Lawrence McGinty who not only confirmed the trip but went looking in ITN’s non-digitised archive for the tape. We were getting close.
We had established that there were only two B2C systems in the 1980s and we had been responsible for both of them. B2C online shopping did not become commercially viable until the internet became widespread later in the 1990s. The 1980s projects had been experiments run by City governments in partnership with supermarkets to deliver services to senior citizens. One of our projects had to be the first in the world. We had to find out which project first put a computer device in a home and permitted goods to be ordered online and delivered. On the face of it, Mrs Snowball was photographed using a specially modified television connected down an ordinary telephone line to a real-time transaction-processing computer. The caption said she was ordering groceries from Tesco. It was our equipment. We knew that it was capable of doing the job. But we had to prove it. Was she the first?
In a box in the back of a garage we found some old Redifon News copies and, lo and behold, some long lost ‘Information Managements.’ ‘Information Management’ editions were never numbered serially so we do not know, even now, whether we have a complete set. Nonetheless, one of the editions, Spring/Summer 1984, had the original Gateshead story in colour. We believe that the magazine was published in June 1984. Therefore the latest date for the photo was early June. That wasn’t the best of the news. Tucked into the magazine was a pristine re-print of an article from ‘The Incorporated Engineer,’ the journal of the IEEE, September 1984, p6. This article was written after the ‘Information Management’ article and contained the following piece of information:
‘and in May this year the videotex system opened for business in a private home and in a sheltered housing development.’
The article was titled, ‘Videotex takes Gateshead Teleshopping into the Home’ and it carried the same photograph as in ‘Information Management’ of Mrs Jane Snowball, 72, using the system. We had the world’s first online home shopper.
Early in September 2008 I wrote to Roger Kelly, the Chief Executive of Gateshead Council and told him of our discovery, asked him if the authority had any material we could add to the archive and suggested that it might be appropriate to recognise Mrs Snowball in some way. There was a very positive response. The Council set out to discover Mrs Snowball. It wasn’t easy but eventually they found one of their social workers who remembered the family. Sadly Mrs Snowball was no longer alive but her relatives had been identified. Moreover, with the permission of her family, we were going to recognise her in a respectful and thoughtful manner.
As the research continued, we found that the Gateshead Shopping Experiment had been largely instigated by a lecturer in the geography department of the University of Newcastle, Ross Davies. Professor Ross Davies went on to found the Oxford Institute of Retail Management at Templeton College, Oxford. He became the father of UK retailing e-commerce and one of the leading intellectual forces behind modern retailing. Gateshead was a milestone on the road to modern e-retailing.
On Friday 9th January 2009, after much effort by John Aeberhard and Marc Lecomber of ITN Source, we found and watched Mrs Snowball being interviewed by Lawrence McGinty as she did her online shopping. Our luck had held because the original tape had deteriorated over the years but the 3 minutes we needed was still good. Mrs Snowball was every bit as charming as people had remembered.
Jule Wilson of Gateshead Council was given the task of organizing a suitable commemoration and celebration of Mrs Snowball. This did not prove to be easy. A number of ideas were explored but were not pursued for practical reasons .Finally it was decided to organise a media event at the Civic Centre in Gateshead and make a commemorative presentation to a member of Mrs Snowball’s family to celebrate a unique achievement. Fortunately, the family were in agreement and Mrs Snowball’s son Derek agreed to be the recipient of the presentation. May 12th 2009 was set for the Civic Centre event. We were going to recognise and honour Mrs Snowball on the 25th Anniversary of her epic purchase. [‘Gateshead celebrates world’s first online shopper’ 13th March 2009.]
It had been a long, difficult, exhilarating and, ultimately, joyful search. Mrs Snowball started an industry that in 2008 recorded in the UK alone some £50 billion in online retail shopping. Worldwide the sum was probably over $500 billion. No industry was ever launched with a fairer face.
For me, the search became a journey into part of my working past that I now recall with great affection. It was well worth remembering. It encouraged me to create this Archive which has expanded far beyond the original concept. I am so grateful to Mrs Snowball. Thank you.
This article is part of the Michael Aldrich Archive that has been donated to the Aldrich Library at the University of Brighton in the section titled ‘Pioneers of Online Shopping'
© Michael Aldrich 2011