I visited the University of Illinois again, earlier this month, for a short whirlwind of research activity. Stopped by the old CERL building aka The Power House, and snapped some photos. Here's the stairway, the famous steps, oh what a story these steps could tell... (and if you have any stories about these steps and this entranceway, email me)...
(I also posted this in a fancier presentation on Medium today.)
Things were getting out of control.
It was the summer of 1973 and the PLATO IV system was growing fast at the University of Illinois. Growing pains were rampant. The developers, both at the system level and at the application level, had a voracious appetite for documentation, information, support, and technical knowledge. Every day the system was changing, new programming features were released, new programs became available. Problems, bugs, and system crashes were frequent.
Since 1972, a text file (technically a TUTOR lesson file, in PLATO parlance) called “notes” had been set aside for the developer community to use as a public bulletin board to post questions and answers relating to the system, reliability, how something is done, something needing fixing, etc. Problem was, it was in essence an open text file that anyone could edit — and, if they so chose, delete. The honor system was in force, but sometimes an honor system is not enough to protect the text that others have posted.
Here’s an example of the old text-file “notes”:
107 1/22 I can’t get into charset mits without lesson errors.
108 On the lesson desired page I typed charset. The next page
109 asks which charset I’m in. I pressed NEXT. My
110 charset name is mits. The error message is labeled
111 mem err.
113 1/22 REMINDER
114 Before you request that a lesson be extended
115 to two parts, be sure there are at least 28 empty
116 words in block a of your lesson. —Bill Golden
118 J. Apter—Is it possible to have the apostrophe
119 straightened, or at least a left single quotation
120 mark added to the list of key characters? Either
121 one would be useful.
122 +++ The apostrophe has been designed to be straight
123 in the new character set to be used in future
124 PLATO IV terminals. See any of the many notes
125 regarding design of new chars—Rick Blomme
128 1/22 AUTHORS: Check “catalog” and “catalog1" before
129 starting a new lesson. Someone might already be
130 writing a lesson on the same subject. Consultation
131 with each other should help not hinder the pro-
132 duction of a good lesson! e.g. there are two
133 lessons on how to use the slide rule. T. Lyman
135 1/22 To Bruce Sherwood— aid1 section E , time slice
136 exceeded in unit write line no 12 last command
137 join at 4:35 pm. Is it the new tutor? C.C. Cheng
Sure, it says “Bill Golden” wrote that bit about 28 empty words in your lesson block, but there was no guarantee that was really Bill Golden. No authentication, no security, growing risk.
The issue was getting particularly annoying in the spring and early summer of 1973. Paul Tenczar, one of the key system programmers, finally asked 17-year-old David Woolley to write a real Notes program to replace the notes text file.
Paul Tenczar, circa 1973
It was Woolley’s first major programming project. He’d graduated high school just the year before, and while he was already being paid to work at the CERL (Computer-based Education Research Laboratory) lab where PLATO was being developed, he’d not yet done anything as monumental as Notes.
“The idea was that users would write notes and system people would respond to them,” Woolley told me. He had never seen an online bulletin board or conferencing forum application—other computer labs and projects around the country were also tinkering with very early forms of message boards but none of that was on PLATO’s or Woolley’s radar at the time. “I went off and used my imagination and wrote it the way it seemed natural to me, I didn’t have a thought to go on,” he said.
The new Notes had one very specific purpose: create a real program that provides the long-needed security and authentication to the old text-file “notes” so that the PLATO community could ask questions and get answers safely and reliably without having to rely on an honor system.
On August 7, 1973, the new PLATO Notes was released. There were three forums: Announce, Public Notes, and Helpnotes.
Here’s the very first note posted in Announce, by Paul Tenczar:
newnotes Note 1
8/7/73 11:07 pm CST pjt / s
Since you got here, you will undoubtedly note that we now
have a new system of user/system notes. We hope that they
will greatly speed up your browsing…and provide us much
greater protection from note-destroyers!
Please direct any comments about these new notes to
Old notes are obtainable by editing files -notes1- through
The “pjt / s” is the PLATO signon, or account, of Paul Tenczar. He was in group “s”.
The Announce notesfile was read-only for most people, meaning, you couldn’t post comments (called “responses” in PLATO jargon) to any notes. It was the place for official announcements from the systems staff, and that’s that. Over time, a tradition would emerge that the system programmer who led the development of the new feature would post the announcement in Announce using his or her own signon.
Public Notes was, as its name suggests, a public forum for the PLATO community to share info, ask questions, and find out what’s new. Helpnotes was a place to get help not only on PLATO things but, in time, on anything: who was the best VW mechanic in town, what’s a good Chinese restaurant, where can I get this or that, etc. There was something special about Helpnotes: an unspoken karmic sense began to emerge whereby the more you answered others’ questions, the sooner others might answer your own. Helpnotes was so good that within a few minutes you might have multiple answers to your questions. All this, 30+ years before Yahoo! Answers and Quora.
The way Woolley designed Notes was significant. A Notes file consisted of Notes with optional Responses saved in linear, chronological order. If the author of a new note needed more room than the 20 or so lines that PLATO afforded, the note would be saved and then the author would simply post a “response” to the “base note” which would show up as “Response 1.” If the message needed even more space, the author could repeat the steps and add a “Response 2,” and so on.
If this was Public Notes or Help Notes, other users could come in and post replies to the note or to a response—but here’s where things got interesting. Unlike some online commenting systems and message boards of more recent vintage, responses to notes were not nested, they were flat and linear. That is, you couldn’t post a response to Response 18, say, and have it show up indented and clearly a comment to Response 18. Instead, everything was flat.
If a Note had 9 responses and what you read in Response 5 got you all hot and bothered and wanting to reply, your response would show up as Response 10. It was up to you to mention in the text of your message that you were commenting on what had been said in Response 5, so people didn’t think you were talking about what was said in Response 9.
This flat, linear style of message forums would be mimicked in PicoSpan, the software Marcus Watts created shortly after Woolley launched Notes. PicoSpan would, years later, be the underlying software that powered The WELL, which was launched in 1985.
Over the next few years, Woolley improved the Notes program and greatly expanded its functionality. In 1976, “Group Notes” was released, which enabled anyone to create a “notesfile” on any subject. The PLATO community had grown by leaps and bounds during the mid-70s, and when anyone could create a notesfile, seemingly everyone did so. Soon there was drugnotes, sexnotes, ipr (Inter-personal Relations), filmnotes, politics, booknotes, musicnotes, micronotes (for topics related to microcomputers), and hundreds of others.
In 1974, Kim Mast, a contemporary of Woolley’s and another CERL junior programmer, created Personal Notes, which was PLATO’s email program. It is notable that email came after message forums on PLATO: the community grew to be comfortable in the public, collaborative, group messaging environment of Notes before they had the ability to privately send messages to people. If only organizations in the past few decades had similar histories, message boards might be more widely used in organizations than email with gigantic cc: lists that tend to consume people’s time and kill productivity.
The event happened on May 1, 2013 at the United States Patent and Trademark Office's National Inventors Hall of Fame. From the Invent.Org website:
"In the mid-1960s, Don Bitzer and Gene Slottow, faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and graduate student Robert Willson, worked together to create the first plasma display. A new display was needed for the PLATO computerized learning system that had been created by Bitzer because traditional displays had no inherent memory, lacked high brightness and contrast, and flickered. Today, plasma displays are known for their accurate color reproduction, high contrast ratios, wide viewing angle and large screen refresh rates."
Here's a video Don recorded for the NIHF, answering the question about PLATO's relationship to NSF and its funding:
I read about this on =pad= on NovaNET and wanted to share it here. Great interview conducted by Carey Martell of the "RPG Fanatic Show" on YouTube, with Gary and Ray talking all about creating "dnd", the first dungeon and dragon game on PLATO. Enjoy!
Longtime PLATO gamers may recall the famous big-board multiuser games like Moonwar, written around 1972 by then high-school student Louis A. Bloomfield in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Bloomfield was a serious gamer and game author and all-around PLATOholic during these years, who then went off to college in Amherst, Massachusetts but returned to work on PLATO during the summers. He later went off to Stanford to pursue a Ph.D. in Physics, and ultimately became a professor at the University of Virginia where he continues to work and teach to this day.
And in an interesting twist of history, he's now signed up to offer a class on Coursera, one of the so-called "MOOC" companies (Massive Open Online Courses) that's gotten so much media attention in the last year, to offer one of his longtime courses, "How Things Work", for free over the Internet. He's been offering this class for decades at the University of Virginia (students love him -- check out his great ratings at RateMyProfessors.com) and in case you don't know, he has a fantastic textbook out also called "How Things Work" (very expensive though!) but also a non-textbook edition which is equally fantastic, called "How Everything Works" (around $18 on Amazon), which explains all sorts of interesting stuff from elevators to washing machines to jet engines. He also has some really interesting physics and science videos on YouTube that are worth digging up, especially if you are a fan of shows like MythBusters.
This may be the first PLATO person to offer a Coursera course. We've come a long way. (Though, and this is an entire other discussion, it's an open question how truly effective Coursera's approach to "online courses" is compared to the best courses on PLATO.) I'm looking forward to hearing how well it does -- I have a hunch it's going to be a big hit.
UPDATE: another bit of news regarding Professor Bloomfield: an invention of his is gaining momentum. Here's a recent news article.
I knew something sneaky was up with Ray. :-) Ever since the PLATO@50 Conference things seemed awful stealthy. As in, it was the *way* he wasn't talking that told me something was up. And then he leaves Microsoft, and then news comes out he's started a new secretive startup company called Cocomo, Inc. Something was up, and a disturbance in the force told me there was PLATO DNA in that there new startup.
PLATO's Talkomatic, also known as Talko, was the world's first chat room app, which Doug Brown and Dave Woolley wrote back in 1973 on the PLATO system. It was the tip of a social-computing iceberg that appeared on PLATO during an amazing twelve month period that saw the rise of multiplayer games, chat rooms, instant messaging, online newspapers, message boards, and email. All written by teens and twentysomethings, who would transform the way people thought about and used computers. They made PLATO the first real social computer. Forever more, people who used PLATO would emerge from the experience with a sense that computers were about connecting people together and letting them talk. This whole history will be covered in great detail in my upcoming book on the history of PLATO. In fact it's such an important part of the PLATO story that it takes up 1/3 of the entire volume.
But back to Ray and Talkomatic. It turns out in July 2012, Cocomo Inc quietly filed trademark registrations not only for Talko but for Talkomatic as well:
I also noticed that the domain "talkomatic.com" was grabbed a little over a month after the PLATO@50 conference. The "talk-o-matic.com" domain is also taken. Interestingly, those two plus "cocomo.com" and "ozzie.net" all use the same mysterious Wilmington, Delaware-based domain registrar. Coincidence?
Needless to say, I'm reaching out to Ray Ozzie, as well as Talkomatic's original authors Doug Brown and Dave Woolley to get their comments. If I hear anything I will update here.
UPDATE no. 1:
Here's the Talko article on TechCrunch. So are Ray and company just using the Talko/Talkomatic name as homage to PLATO, but not similar functionality? Unknown at this time.
He and his brothers are now all filmmakers, all successful. His brother Andrew was CEO and co-founder of MovieFone and has done a number of interesting, notable films, and Nicholas, who was born in 1979, just recently came out with the Richard Gere financial thriller Arbitrage which also got very good reviews.
But in terms of PLATO history, what's interesting is that the Jarecki family (the father is the psychologist and successful commodities investor Dr. Henry Jarecki) was one of the only families in the entire world to have a private PLATO terminal in their home during the early to mid-1970s. That made Eugene was one of the first kids in the world to grow up online in the sense we mean it today: in addition to access to countless hours of online courseware (he loved the Sentences lesson), he also had access to the notesfiles, chat rooms, instant messaging, and addictive multiplayer games, not to mention having the experience commonplace today of every day (if not every minute) something new, exciting, and distracting happening online. He got an early, and heavy, dose of what was coming decades later.
Even years later, Jarecki vividly remembered playing games on PLATO. "The addiction never goes away," Eugene told me in a 2003 interview for the book. "So I would always be happy to play Empire."
He was particularly fond of the orange glow that emanated from his family's PLATO terminal's flat-panel display. "The thing with the orange glow," he told me, "is it remains to this day the most pleasing color palette I've seen, that sort of weird cloudy screen? It's like dark, you honestly felt that behind that screen that there was miles of space." He's not the only one who felt that way.
Roger Ebert (@ebertchicago) just tweeted the following: "30 years ago today, scientist Scott Fahlman suggested the use of a colon, a hyphen, and a parenthesis to represent happy and sad faces." Right. Meanwhile, PLATO users had been doing emoticons for a full decade prior.
UPDATE: this week there are tons of news articles and digital media "reporters" writing articles celebrating the "30th birthday" of Internet ASCII emoticons, blithely ignoring the important and substantial usage of emoticons by thousands of PLATO users all through the 1970s.
I originally wrote the following text back in September 2002, but it is still as valid now as it was then, and considering all the news this month about the "30th anniversary of emoticons" I figured it was time to trot out some facts about PLATO's own history that goes back much further. So here again is my writeup on PLATO emoticons. in an edited form. Much more will be coming in my upcoming book.
The news is floating around the Web right now about the "discovery" of the
first online emotion-conveying icon or "emoticon." What readers and reporters are apparently not aware of is
that the emoticon or "smiley" being discussed is the first ASCII smiley. Compared to PLATO's emoticons, the ASCII ones were downright primitive, usually requiring you to turn your head sideways to "get" the joke.
Like so many things, PLATO was doing emoticons and smileys, online and onscreen, years earlier. In fact,emoticons on PLATO were already an art form by 1976. PLATO users
began doing smiley characters probably as early as 1972 (when PLATO IV came out),
but possibly even earlier on PLATO III (still to be determined... old-timer PLATO III
users please speak up!).
A close-up of some famous PLATO emoticons. There were thousands.
How were these things done? Well, on PLATO, you could press SHIFT-space to move
your cursor back one space -- and then if you typed another character, it would appear
on top of the existing character. And if you wanted to get real fancy, you
could use the MICRO and SUB and SUPER keys on a PLATO keyboard to move up and down one pixel or more --
in effect providing a HUGE array of possible emoticon characters. So if you typed "W" then
SHIFT-space then "O" then SHIFT-space then "B", "T", "A", "X", all with SHIFT-spaces in between,
all those characters would plot on top of each other, and the result would be the smiley
as shown above in the "WOBTAX" example.
Below are just some examples of smileys and emoticons collected from lesson =m4= on
PLATO in the mid 1970s:
Emoticons were widely used on PLATO. You'd see people include them in messages, in chats (instant messaging was called TERM-talk and chat rooms were available in =talkomatic=). It was just part of the culture, once you started seeing someone posting them, you wanted to know how they did that; you learned, and then you started doing it too! The sideways-looking ASCII emoticons of other systems were primitive compared to what you saw on PLATO.
By the way, an interesting dissertation on emoticons and such was done by Janet Asteroff in 1987.
The dissertation is called Paralanguage in Electronic Mail: A Case Study. It mentions the
Scott Fahlman proposal. Alas, the dissertation never mentions PLATO...
Today the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued a patent to Google for its Google Doodles feature, wherein the company's home page logo is customized on certain holidays or days to commemorate a certain person, place, or thing.
Problem is, this is not Sergey Brin's or Google's invention. It is PLATO's. (And who knows, there might have been prior art even before the early to mid 1970s when the practice was commonplace on PLATO's "welcome page.")
Consider that Sergey Brin was born on August 21, 1973. Thanksgiving day that year fell on November 22, 1973. On that day, the PLATO welcome page looked like this:
Sergey Brin, inventor of the customized welcome to celebrate a holiday, was just 93 days old. I know he was brilliant, but I didn't think he was that brilliant. I also didn't know he had an author signon on the CERL PLATO system. The things one learns...
Now, a persnickety IP lawyer might say, but look, what Google is claiming is a customized logo not a customized clock. On PLATO welcome pages, when a special day arrived, the clock was customized, not the logo. To which i would say, you're being persnickety and that is not the point. The general idea is identical. Top of fold, most prominent thing on the introductory page of a computer service gets customized for special occasions to attract user attention and have a little fun in the process. End of story.
Here's an example of a Google Doogle celebrating Thanksgiving 2010:.
Google's 2010 Thanksgiving welcome page. 37 years after PLATO.
(Thanks to a tip from "theodp", whose actual name I have never known in all the years he or she has been emailing me.)
It was fifty years ago today that a then 27-year-old electrical engineering PhD whiz kid named Don Bitzer, along with mathematician colleague Peter Braunfeld, demonstrated the PLATO II system to the assembled dignitaries, including David Dodds Henry, the President of the University of Illinois. The event was called the "President's Faculty Conference on Improving Our Educational Aims in the Sixties" and was attended by over 100 faculty members and assorted guests.
It's a significant date because it was a very early public demonstration not only of computer-based education, but also of time-sharing and remote access of a computer system. The demo was held at the Allerton House, 30 miles to the west of the University of Illinois' ILLIAC computer at the Coordinated Sciences Laboratory.
Here's a photo from March 10th, showing Don seated on the floor, talking on the phone, trying to get things to work between Allerton and the PLATO lab back at the university:
Note the keyboard on the chair on the left. It has about 16 keys. Home-made. Built-from scratch. And the "monitor" on the chair on the right is, you guessed right, a cheap black-and-white TV.
The demo was a big success and helped propel the PLATO project forward. Within two years would arrive PLATO III, running on a more powerful CDC 1604 computer. PLATO II was a proof of concept that PLATO could run with simultaneous users, in this case two, but the idea was "N", as in, if you can run two users, it might as well be N users, with N limited merely by memory, CPU, and other resources.
This talk is based on a chapter I've written for my upcoming book The Friendly Orange Glow, about the story of Red Sweater and his Red Sweater News Service aka NewsReport, which I argue is the the world's first online newspaper and blog.
UPDATE: Seems that SXSW did NOT in fact accept my proposal, but decided on their own to sign me up for something else that I did not even propose to them! Sigh. So, forget SXSW.
Dr. Larry Weber, who worked on the PLATO plasma panel project at CERL back in the day, and who participated in the hardware session at the PLATO @ 50 conference (watch the video here), was one of thirteen individuals inducted into the Consumer Electronics Association's CE Hall of Fame 2010 class. Dr. Bitzer and Dr. Slottow, co-inventors of the plasma panel display, were already inducted into the CE Hall of Fame in 2006.
I've submitted a proposal to the SXSW 2011 Interactive Conference in Austin, TX. SXSW wrote back and said they loved the idea, but it seems like it's up to the world to vote for the session to make sure it gets added to the agenda.
The session is on NewsReport, which I argue is the world's first online newspaper (and perhaps blog). Certainly the earliest precursor to what we see commonplace today on the web, as far as I can tell. Should be a great session.
HOW YOU CAN HELP: You can help make this session come about by going to the link below and clicking on the thumbs up icon, indicating you're voting in favor of this session. Please vote, and spread the word via Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere! Thanks!
Is nothing sacred? Apparently not, when it comes to names of people, places, and things from the PLATO era. Last year was the year that "Avatar" was wrenched from the clutches of PLATO gaming legend to become the biggest movie in history. And now, I find that not even Bruce Parrello's famous screen name, Red Sweater, is safe. No, there's a software company with that name:
I contacted the folks at Red Sweater, and they say they've never heard of PLATO let alone poor Mr. Parrello. And so it goes, another PLATO name gobbled up by the present day...
One mystery I've never been able to solve is: who went, in May 1974, to the Little Theatre in Sullivan, Illinois, where Leonard Nimoy -- Spock himself -- was starring in a regional stage performance of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest? I ask, because whoever it was who went down there, apparently went backstage, met Nimoy, and invited him up to the University of Illinois for a visit. And, what do you know, Nimoy agreed. And next thing you know, he is touring CERL.
Were you the person who invited Nimoy? Or, were you there the day he visited CERL? If I've not already interviewed you about this, please get in touch. I'd really like to get this story straight. Thanks!
Donald Bitzer was invited on The Phil Donahue Show twice to demonstrate PLATO. The first time was around 1978. I have a copy of that video. But I am still looking for a copy of the 1981 second show, for which I believe he was sole guest, and had the entire hour to demo PLATO. (The first show he had to share with an annoying fake robot named AROK that trivialized much of the rest of the show.)
If anyone has a VHS, Beta, DVD, or other recording of the second Donahue show, please let me know (email brian at platohistory dot org). Thanks!
The Games Panel at the PLATO@50 conference featured John Markoff (Moderator), Bruce Artwick, John Daleske, Dr. Brand Fortner, Dr. Andrew Shapira, and Rich Hilleman. It's about 71 minutes long -- enjoy!
The Computer History Museum has uploaded another video from the PLATO@50 conference, late this afternoon -- the panel on Online Community. Featured are Charlene Li (Moderator), Dave Woolley, and Kim Mast, and Lili Cheng of Microsoft.
The Computer History Museum uploaded another high-definition video of a PLATO@50 panel session to YouTube today. This is the 1hr 9min video of the Online Education panel from June 3rd. It features an introduction by CHM CEO John Hollar, and a panel including Dr. Ruth Chabay, Dr. Sharon Dugdale, Bonnie Anderson Seiler, and Dr. Bruce Sherwood. The Moderator is Dr. Roy D. Pea:
You know that pile of computer tapes you have in the basement, or was it the attic? You know, the ones in those dusty old boxes that you stuffed away twenty or thirty or maybe even thirty-five years ago? The ones that contain backups of everything on the PLATO mainframe you worked on? Yeah, those tapes.
Could I borrow them?
I'm getting a lot of requests for tapes lately. I stopped asking for 'em long ago, but I guess the conference triggered interest in backup tapes again. If there's one thing I've learned over the years -- someone somewhere has tapes. Someone somewhere always has the pile of stuff you're looking for, be it tapes, brochures, articles, Kodachrome color slides, snapshots, movies, videos. It's out there somewhere.
I recently had dinner with some of the Cyber1.org folks and they were very interested in tapes too. They'd like to restore stuff on those tapes and get the lessons, notesfiles, whatever, onto cyber1.org. I'd love to see that too.