In the seventies "Computer lib / dream machines" by Ted Nelson covered all the hottest computer systems in North America and included among them small talk and Plato and the logo Lab at MIT and graphics at Utah and a few others.
Xerox PARC researchers visited PLATO in 1972 and when they got back to Palo Alto they implemented just about everything they saw! App generator for pictures (SD Mode), paint (charset editor), bitmap /memory graphics display (plasma panel), multiple fonts and character sets, etc!
Friendly Orange Glow is unfortunately kind of overstuffed, meandering and political and focused excessively on bitzer, and misses so much of what PLATO/NovaNET were to so many people. Empire, avatar, oubliette, dnd, even moonwar, typomatic, Room B/C, night ops, pso, AIDS, TERM-test, cherry keyboard hoarding, stig bjorklund, the chem lab, the trs-80 running the satellite, lippold haken and the music room, bigfoot. I don't know if it's possible to write the PLATO story but FOG only skips across the surface.
I loved the avatar gameplay and the fact that it wasn't a "massively" multiplayer dungeon crawl, but rather something small enough that you knew most of the players. I'd trade a lot of the scale and graphics of modern gameplay for a return to the deliberate party based run of modestly updated avatar.
I sometimes think about bringing back avatar. I was one of the avatar ops, and came up with the idea of the afterlife, which was intended to improve its single player playability, but my version (navatar) was maybe a bit too sprawling and ambitious.
In case you take it up as a retirement project: what I'd love to see is an avatar builder's kit. Create the core engine, a basic level, monster, item, and class editor, and let people mod it. The basic party mechanics and att/def model could be standardized, but let people create their own game based on their own data. Create the hooks for people to add additional gameplay (ingredients, etc). Let people self-host.
Like you, I think about doing this every couple years. :)
I'm the author of The Friendly Orange Glow. I agree the book skips across the surface.
Some backstory: I originally proposed three volumes, each 1000 pages, to the publisher. They laughed and told me absolutely no. My thinking was, PLATO as a topic needs to be approached the way Robert Caro approached Lyndon Johnson. It's going to need multiple 1000-page books.
The publisher's reaction to my proposal was laughter. Their deal was, one book, 150,000 words, take it or leave it. So I took it: I'd spent 30+ years working on the project, had accumulated some 7 million words of interview transcripts, and had to get it out. In the end I delivered 229,000 words to the publisher which even then was the result of painful and severe chopping out of not only major sections but even entire chapters--all kinds of history got removed from the manuscript. (By the way, the final book came out to 209,000 words. Publisher was pissed that it wasn't 150,000. Editor, god bless him, stood by me, and we shipped 209,000 words. Publisher, I firmly believe, punished me by listing the book at a $40.00 list price, which is instant market death for a hardcover book in 2017. Powell's refused to let me do a book event because they don't allow $40 books to be presented by authors. It was sabotage, in my opinion. The publisher did atrocious, half-hearted work at publicity. They sent seven copies to people at the New York Times, which did nothing and never reviewed it. Nor did WPost. Nor did LA Times. Or SF Chronicle. Or Boston Globe, etc, etc. Only Wall Street Journal reviewed it, and they gave it a glowing review.
But here's the thing... anyone who knew and used PLATO is going to have their pet topics and focus areas, and complain about topics the book did include that are not favorites to them personally. Trust me, I've heard from thousands of PLATO people and everybody's happy and unhappy at the same time with what is in, and what is not in, the book. But I didn't write the book for PLATO people. I wrote it for the 8 billion people on Earth who'd never heard of PLATO and who were likely to never hear of it and its significance if something didn't get published that triggered PLATO to finally enter the conversation.
And look what's happening: Y Combinator's Hacker News is talking about PLATO! Ars of all things is talking about PLATO! In the past 5 years, Slate and WIRED (who always hated PLATO and refused to mention it) talked about PLATO. Verge and Motherboard covered it. PLATO is now a part of the conversation. Mission accomplished.
Finally: If you want to get a copy and read The Friendly Orange Glow, you can buy a hardcover from me directly by going to the Amazon site's hardcover page for the book, and selecting a "New" copy from seller Birdrock Books. That's me. I'm selling new copies for $11.11. Brand new, out of the box from the publisher. They come from me, with my signature on it.
I've read all four volumes of Caro's LBJ biography and praying he doesn't die before finishing the final one.
PLATO is not in that category, sorry. I was there (at UIUC). PLATO had an extremely small influence on the University, and especially on the Dept. of Computer Science. We never saw them at DCL.
According to the internet-history mailing list (which has essentially all the pioneers who are still alive), they had negligible influence on the Internet.
That's not to denigrate PLATO and what they did. It was the pinnacle of what you could do with a mainframe-and-terminals system. They could have had a much bigger influence on computers and society than they had.
Who cares about the Internet. (I'm on internet-history... it's a bunch of aging farts, very distinguished and nice aging farts but still, talking about TCP/IP and who did email and who did this and when did that happen etc. That's all swell. My book was not about the Internet. It was about PLATO and from a larger perspective, the rise of cyberculture of which "internet" only a portion.)
DCL like the Education dept at UIUC pooh-poohed PLATO from the outset. So it's no wonder they had a snooty attitude (and still do) about PLATO. MIT and Stanford had the same snooty attitue. PLATO was electrical engineering-driven, and science and humanities-driven. Very unusual for such a project, but that was the way it was.
Also, my book wasn't about the impact PLATO had on the University, but on cyberculture. The University politicians gladly swept PLATO under the carpet as soon as they could as the NCSA got big money in the 80s, and then the web took off in the 90s. Today it's like PLATO never existed at UIUC. A lot of that is due to decisions the PLATO lab took to stick to clearly antiquated design decisions and a reluctance to embrace client/server and distributed-computing designs. But they had to stick to old ways, because they had an immediate need to deploy, they weren't an ivory tower think tank like Xerox PARC dreaming up what the future might look like in 20 years. PLATO folks were dreaming up the then-present, and they shipped, like any good startup.
I interviewed a number of CS profs who worked at DCL in the 60s/70s/80s including H George Friedman, who was one of the few CS dept people who gave PLATO a try and built lessons for his programming students. Also, a full BASIC emulator was written. I think a FORTRAN was too. And definitely a LOGO environment. But as George told me, DCL looked down on CERL. DCL was an IBM shop. CERL was a CDC/CYBER shop. Oil and water.
And it's not about PLATO trying to "gain acceptance" at DCL. Other than George and maybe one or two other profs, nobody was interested. And CERL had its hands full with departments all over campus, and over 1000 terminals all over campus and as far away as Hawaii and Delaware, using the system.
I'm not going to engage anymore with you. I've said my piece and we're done. Good day to you.
It is when it's every single thread. That's when it gets weird.
As far as PLATO's impact on the world, I think it's underestimated and underappreciated. I don't give a shit about internet-history, I was one of the first few thousand people on the arpanet too. The actual authors of Mosaic were in CERL quite a bit. Usenet was already going on, but newsreaders (rn, trn, nn, etc.) were clearly influenced by the structure of notes and vice versa. dnd, oubliette and avatar were shamelessly ripped off multiple times and were the early foundation for graphical dungeon crawlers.
The idea that PLATO somehow needed to impact the CS department is kind of risible. Like having terminals in DCL was important? What did DCL ever do? PLATO impacted basically every chem, ceram, mech-e, comp-e, edu, edu-tech, geo, physics, etc., student at UIUC, not to mention U Chicago and places like Honolulu and ETH, for more than a decade. Thousands of us who grew up learning TUTOR as /jpr/cerl accounts have ended up having pretty good computer careers, all because of PLATO.
"every single thread" : it's in the news the last few days. I'll continue to share what I know, and your idea of "weirdness" is your own hangup. We can take it up with dang if you think there's something wrong with it.
"having terminals in DCL" : I wasn't aware PLATO invented terminals.
"I don't give a shit about internet-history" : OK, that categorizes you.
There were lots of ideas, and PLATO had some. I never used the word "irrelevant." However, they are not the lost city of Atlantis or the panspermia idea that suddenly explains everything. They were there; they had some success; they could have had much more and thus wouldn't need to be rediscovered now.
But PLATO did pretty much re-invent terminals in the 70's, with a touchscreen (infrared), flat-screen plasma display which later earned Don Bitzer and his two co-inventors an Emmy, was mentioned in an IETF IRC, and was also credited - together with PLATO itself - as inspiring some of Xerox Parc's work by Alan Kay, despite the big differences in technology used by the PLATO and Parc groups.
Then there's PLATO Notes, which inspired Ray Ozzie (who worked on PLATO at UIUC) to create Lotus Notes, which pretty much ruled the eMail/workflow world back in the day (Ozzie went on to introduce Azure while Microsoft's CTO/CSA). And while certainly far more primitive, the paradigm of students using PLATO V smart terminals to connect to CDC mainframes that served up courseware in the 1970's bears more than a passing resemblance to how kids in 2023 connect their laptops to Google's Cloud to serve up Khan Academy lessons.
ECE alumni win Emmy for inventing the flat-panel plasma display 10/23/2002
In early October, three University of Illinois Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE) alumni received an Emmy Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Donald Bitzer (BS ’55, MS ’56, PhD ’60), H. Gene Slottow (PhD ’64), and Robert Willson (PhD ’66) received the prestigious award for inventing the flat-panel plasma display, the forerunner of today’s high-definition flat-panel television monitors.
Internet Engineering Task Force RFC 600 - IETF November 1973
INTERFACING AN ILLINOIS PLASMA TERMINAL TO THE ARPANET
The PLATO IV System based at the University of Illinois at Urbana is a highly sophisticated and very powerful approach to Computer Aided Instruction. The PLATO IV system makes use of a plasma display terminal that is a unique device with capabilities not presently found on computer terminals. A number of ARPA supported projects intend to use the plasma terminal on local connection to computer resources or by long-distance connection to the PLATO IV System.
Quora: Was the Plato IV system any influence on the Alto and PARC in general?
Alan Kay I am the Alan Kay in question.
Upvoted by Michael David Cobb Bowen, former P/A at Xerox (1982-1989) and Mark Decker, former DocuTech Analyst at Xerox (1979-1997)
We liked the Plato people a lot. Like the ARPA community and Xerox Parc they just invented and built everything they wanted that they couldn’t buy.
But they and Parc were on completely divergent paths. Plato ran on a 1000 terminal time-sharing system, and the displays were slow. So what they went after was very different (some of it was quite good, and some of it inspired us to do better with the vastly more powerful/person Alto).
Back to 1968. We were aware that flat screen displays were coming, but it was very exciting and inspiring to actually see a working one. This led to discussions about when the transistors in the Flex Machine could be put on the back of a flat screen display to make a tablet personal computer (the answer was in about 10 years we thought).
Lotus Notes (aka HCL Domino)
"Notes has a history spanning more than 30 years. Its chief inspiration was PLATO Notes, created by David R. Woolley at the University of Illinois in 1973. In today's terminology, PLATO Notes supported user-created discussion groups, and it was part of the foundation for an online community which thrived for more than 20 years on the PLATO system. Ray Ozzie worked with PLATO while attending the University of Illinois in the 1970s. [...] the installed base of Lotus Notes has increased from an estimated 42 million seats in September 1998 to approximately 140 million cumulative licenses sold through 2008.
Why did you go the book route? It sounds like you spent a vast amount of effort to ship a book which fell radically short of your vision & available material, which made the most nugatory profit (and by any honest accounting was a big financial loss to you), and which didn't succeed at making a mark as a formal prestigious book. Wouldn't've it have worked a lot better to focus on a comprehensive website where you could put up all the material and solicit submissions?
What I wanted to do was a film documentary. What stopped me was, there was no footage! Meaning, nobody at CERL, the PLATO lab at U Illinois, had filmed everything. Nobody was a movie camera nerd. Nobody captured all the historical events, or even just day to day meetings / demos. It wasn't that kind of lab: everyone was insanely focused on the work at hand, and the culture was never one to expend any cycles on documenting how things went along the way. So there's a paper record, but very little in the way of footage. And if you do a documentary feature film you need TONS TONS TONS of video and film footage.
I did consider a website but ugh, it limits the audience. It doesn't get into bookstores. It doesn't get on college syllabi. You gotta do a book. So I did a book.
As for big financial loss, I knew going into the project I'd never make back what I put into the project over ~30 years. I didn't care; that wasn't the goal. The goal was to capture the story while the criticial mass of key PLATO people were still alive, and then put that into print so the world would know about PLATO before it all disappeared--believe me, the Silicon Valley tech industry would be perfectly happy if PLATO had disappeared. It messes so much with their mythology, after all! So that was a big motivator. The book has done fairly well, actually, and continues to sell in hardcover, paperback, and audiobook editions.
While U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan marveled in 2014 that his kids could learn to code online using Khan Academy, a 1975 paper on Interactive Systems for Education notes that 650 students were learning programming online using PLATO during the Spring '75 semester http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED102940.pdf
One of my earliest memories of a computer was around 1979, when a kind teacher took me to see a PLATO terminal at my elementary school. I remember being shown I could play the game Concentration with another person somewhere else in the world, the magic of networking. It made a huge impression on me.
My Mom certainly was not a developer, but she was studying nursing at little Bay Du Noc college in the upper peninsula of Michigan and AMAZINGLY there was a computer lab there with those orange round plastic machines and it was completely empty save for one guy that gave me an account and allowed me to chat with someone in California via a dungeon game. I must have been about 11 or 12. Looking back I wish I'd spent more hours in that lab.
Did she write it in Esperanto? I have a vague memory of cartoon characters doing things you typed in. But the developers thought Esperanto was easier to parse, so they made humans learn it to talk to the computer. Jen kial mi lernis esperanton.
Ha! There were some PLATO terminals at the University of Western Australia through to the 1990s. I spent a couple of months in 1990 using PLATO to learn to touch-type. My speed dropped from 35wpm to 20wpm, until I built it up again to a peak of 95wpm a few years later, reached by spending hours on IRC typing in complete sentences.
Always wanted to get out to Western Australia and Perth... still hope to visit some day. I have a video somewhere still of Don Bitzer's PLATO demo/presentation that he gave there in 1976 which was aired nationally on ABC in Australia.
Plato Homelink was my first online community, circa 1984 (?), after a positive writeup in PC Magazine. It had a lot of positive tech features (graphics!). But mainly it was a warm and welcoming place, with friendly people who were really interested in learning from each other.
brian dear / orange07 / pea.... homelink customer too... it was crazy expensive. But then I wound up with two physical PLATO terminals at home, and I was dialing in to CERL for all the fun and games, and to umbc for work
In the summer of 1970 as an undergraduate at UIUC, I worked on a "predicting the future" game on PLATO. The idea was, rather than just do some simulation of the future based on a matrix of interactions, we would do the simulation, ask the player what seemed "wrong", and then adjust the interactions.
The trick was the tiny amount of memory available for each user -- 63 words -- not enough for much of a matrix. But words could have 8 characters, and we certainly did not need high precision in our interaction matrix, so I ended up packing 8 8-bit words in each variable, using masks and shifts, allowing much larger interaction matrices (I probably used 16x16)
Ten years later, the packing/shifting became a central part of one of the first widely used protein sequence similarity searching programs, FASTP (the precursor of FASTA and BLASTP).
I worked in the PLATO group at CDC from 1980 to 1986, both in authoring system and courseware development. The Magnavox terminal I took as salvage is now in the Computer History Museum, and I still have the wire-wrap prototype IST-3 in my storeroom.
I feel directly connected to Plato via Silas Warner's Robot War which was very influential for me. It was light years ahead of other micro software at the time and I'm convinced that the Plato cocoon was a major source of ideas and experience for the young Warner.
This again. Ted Gioia also mentioned it this week. They did have some nice technology.
I was there then. My total interaction with PLATO was once, as an experimental subject for a Psych class. A friend of mine had one class that used it. The consensus of the internet-history mailing list is that they were not very influential.
They didn't "shape the future" because they kept to themselves, in their own building. We never saw them in the Digital Computer Lab. CDC completely missed the distributed computing revolution.
I went to FSU in Tallahassee for my undergrad. The PLATO machines were used for computer-based training for lower-level math classes. The only reason I knew about them was because I worked in the Math Help Center right across the hall, with an overlapping student user base.
I remember the orange screens. And remember a "squash the bug" game possible due to the press-sensitive screen. But while I remember the admin mentioning some of PLATO's broader capabilities, that wasn't part of the student culture or knowledge base.
The local online community, for example, was based around the CONFER program running on the CDC Cyber, a machine accessible via several unlocked terminal rooms running dumb terminals.
I then went to UIUC (Illinois) for graduate school, in the physics department. PLATO was much more integrated into school life there. But this was also the time of Archie and Gopher, and of course the Mosaic web browser came out of UIUC shortly after I arrived. I only ever used PLATO as a T.A., to enter undergrad grades.
Once long ago I worked for Convex Comouter Corporation. We sold mini-super-computers. I was on the team that converted all our docs to lightly formatted text files so we could distribute them via gopher.
Three days after putting everything up on gopher one of my co-workers came in with a tape from NCSA saying "hey. I got this interesting program from the NCSA guys. They call it a web browser."
(But early versions of mosaic and navigator understood Gopher URLs, so it wasn't a complete waste of time.)
I was at Illinois during 1992-1997. The school had a number of gopher services, and then ... poof, Mosaic. I think we set up our research group's http server in 1994. One of the PIs wanted to support both gopher and http, but by then the writing was already clearly on the wall, and we only did http.
You’re missing the terminals in an academic music library in Perth, Western Australia, and terminals in a local jail there too. Term-talk, and the games, and p-notes were transformational for some of us, who later went on in tech roles.
Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. They put ttys and later silent 700s in elementary schools and libraries connected by dialup to a CDC. they had a early mud called Milieu that I spent a lot of time on...and I wrote some basic and pascal programs. in fact I think I took a programming class at some kind of summer school at the community college that was hosted there too.
MERITSS/MECC was a fun, funky time-share system. It used multiple peripherals to feed one central CPU (with not much memory). The access I used had an acoustic modem (using a dedicated line) and a Model-33 teleprinter with a ASCII paper tape reader/puncher for storage.
On good days, the time-share part was transparent. But there were dozens of access points; on rare days when most of them were in use, you could press a key and wait 10 or more seconds to get the character echoed back to the printer.
One day I got one hour of access to a plasma-screen PLATO, and it was amazing. Never again even saw another.
btw, in "The Big Bucks" I have a (fictional) grad student Matt Feingold at U Minn. I've never even been to Minneapolis, but I did at least verify that there was married student housing, and they were not in the initial group for CSNet.
Matt sneak-installs ARCNet at the university, which I'm pretty sure never happened. There's also a fictional French professor "Dr. Caron" who talks about the (real) Minitel.
The Minitel actually was pretty decent, and they had a revenue model vastly different from what we've ended up with (the cost just ends up on your phone bill, and the service providers pay the phone company). I'm not saying this would be better, but at least no ads!
thinking about this now. its pretty clear to me that that early education in computing gave me this career. as a youth I never wanted to pursue it, but when it was computing or minimum wage for the 8th year in a row - I already had the tools I needed to start.
Xerox PARC stole everything they could from PLATO after their 1972 tour of PLATO and being PhDs never gave credit where credit was due! Picture language, app generator, multilingual fonts, a system so simple even a kid could learn to program it (I did at age 14, self taught), bitmap graphics, etc. When I went to work at Xerox Office Systems Division - the development arm of PARC - I would say that after 13 years of trying - with computers 10x faster - they were PARTIALLY caught up! Highly inferior communications tools, and no support for inter-terminal games . .
I never heard of the Plato connection when I worked on Star in the 80s at Xerox. This is news to me. I’d really like to see more documented proof of this.
I also working on the Multilingual stuff (I implemented the bidi stuff in the Star editor) with my friend Joe Becker and never heard of influence from PLATO. I’ll ask directly next time we talk but I just don’t believe it’s true at all.
The 1972 tour is widely known, but if you worked at Xerox in the early days you should know that they are good at taking credit and minimizing the work of others who came before them. It goes with the egos which were too large to fit in hyperspace. P.S. who are you? we should talk.
For pioneering online education and communities with PLATO and coinventing the plasma display
When networks like the Internet were still a research lab curiosity, Don Bitzer's multiuser PLATO system served as a dress rehearsal for what we do on those networks today – learn, teach, collaborate, chat, mail, play games, argue, and more. PLATO's courseware language and touchscreen, multimedia terminals previewed features of decades hence. PLATO was a postcard from the future of online communities, and its example would help make that future real.
Donald L. Bitzer was born January 1, 1934 and is an American electrical engineer and computer scientist. He is co-inventor of the flat-panel plasma display and the "father of PLATO,” the world’s earliest time-shared, computer-based education system and home to one of the world’s most pioneering online communities.
History doesn't quite work as nicely as one might like. Fact is, dozens, probably hundreds, maybe thousands, of PLATO people wound up working in the tech industry, had long careers there at DEC, Data General, Sun Microsystems, Atari, Oracle, Apple, Google, Microsoft, etc etc etc etc.
The last section of my book documents some of the influences, including the most obvious one, Ray Ozzie's Iris project which created Lotus Notes, named after PLATO Notes. Lotus Notes had like 100 million users and was sold to IBM for billions of dollars. It had a huge influence on the corporate IT world.
And AuthorWare was developed by PLATO people, and got merged with Macromind, creating MacroMedia, which was ultimately gobbled up for billions by Adobe.
There's a lot of influence, but there's 100000x more noise and other stuff since, so it's buried and therefore the normal conclusion is "oh, there's no evidence so there was no impact" but that's too easy to dismiss... there's lots of impact, and PLATO people went everywhere, including me, doing a bunch of startups all of which were influenced by PLATO in one or more ways
Not just tech industry people. The prolific, Pulitzer prize winning novelist
Richard Powers  learned to program on PLATO and worked as a programmer before quitting to write full-time. His novel The Gold Bug Variations  is set at a Midwestern university, I can't recall if it is identified as UIUC.
The Friendly Orange Glow (which a few of these reference) has easily the most information I've ever seen about PLATO in one place. (Perhaps more than you'd like, if you don't care for the university politics surrounding it - but hey, it's comprehensive.) For anyone who's at all interested in PLATO, I'd recommend giving it a read.
Looking at the general mood people had towards computers in the 60s, it's clear computers and any computer technology seem to follow a three decade trend of speculation, readjustment and push back, then full adoption.
First decade: philosophical fervor, extreme optimism and speculative wonder into how the future will change
Second decade: Post-bust adjustment, pessimism, bias towards return to normalcy
Third decade: Full integration, time before feels alien
1960s: computers are a world changing, mind opening key to an unimaginably bright future
1970s: computers are just another tool and overhyped, not a change to the status quo
1980s: computers are inseparable from almost every part of our day to day lives
1990s: The internet is a world changing, mind opening key to a unimaginably bright future
2000s: the internet is just another tool and overhyped, not a change to the status quo
2010s: the internet is inseparable from almost every part of our day to day lives
2000s: AI is a world changing, mind opening key to an unimaginably bright future
2010s: AI is just another tool and overhyped, not a change to the status quo
2020s: AI is inseparable from almost every part of our day to day lives
Your comment does not reflect history in the U.S.A.. And judging from the GP "our day to day lives" is very much U.S. centric.
""By 1981, all GM vehicles would be equipped with their new Computer Command Control System ("CCC") emission control system that featured an ECM (Electronic Control Module) that featured a Motorola 6802 based 8-bit microprocessor manufactured by Delco Electronics. ""
VisiCalc came out in 1979, and spreadsheets were common in business offices in the U.S.A. through the 1980's.
Entertainment - TV and movies:
Computers were also used in commercial and movie production (ex. the 1984 Macintosh commercial, Pixar founded 1986 more or less out of Lucasfilm, and note that the VideoToaster came out for the Amiga in 1990 bringing professional level video production to a much more accessible price point.)