PLATO History  
Blog Conference About the Site Contact

Just noticed CHM recently posted this on YouTube.

Dave Liddle is a legend in Silicon Valley but what many don't know is he had an interesting role with Owens-Illinois in the late 60s, working on the plasma display, in cooperation with the PLATO plasma panel team at the University of Illinois.

Here's a recent oral history conducted at the Computer History Museum of Dave talking about his long illustrious career. The plasma project starts around the 17 minute mark, but the video below is set to around 15 minutes so you can get a little context of what led to his choice of going to Owens-Illinois. Better yet, start at the beginning of the interview and watch the whole 2.5 hour extravaganza!

Here is a never-before-published chapter that didn’t make it into my book The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, offered here in celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the start of the PLATO computer-based education system at the University of Illinois, a computer project launched the first week of June 1960, and also in celebration of the late Roger Ebert, the acclaimed film critic and fan of PLATO, and also educator John Hunter, who simultaneously met Ebert and learned about PLATO for the first time, in a most unusual and unexpected way. . .

Novelist Richard Powers wins the Pulitzer Price for Fiction for his novel THE OVERSTORY.

Richard has a PLATO connection in that he attended the University of Illinois as an undergraduate in the 1970s, and wound up using the PLATO system for several years. I spent a lot of time with him interviewing and walking around the campus back in 2003, and that resulted in an entire chapter of The Friendly Orange Glow (the chapter entitled "The Zoo") being written about and around his work and his experience on PLATO, an experience, he told me, that profoundly influenced and shaped his future writing career and the topics he chose to write about.

Here's the schedule for the nationwide book tour launching the release of "The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture":

A response to a presentation about PLATO that was given at the recent SIGCIS Command Lines conference at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA:

My book "The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture" published by Pantheon Books, is now available for pre-order on a number of e-commerce sites. The book will be in stores on November 14, 2017, so we still have a few months to go.

More details will be forthcoming here and on the official book site,

Hello many Ars Technica readers who came here from Richard Moss's big article on the history of some PLATO games published over there on that site today. If you would like information on THE FRIENDLY ORANGE GLOW: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture book, coming from Pantheon Books in the Fall of 2017, please click the book title link or this link to go straight to the official book site for more background and info on the book.

Over the years the PLATO system has figured its way into, to my knowledge, three science fiction stories. Two were short stories and one was a novel.

Virtual Vengeance book   Future City book

First the novel.

Tom Starr wrote to me last year during a time I was extremely busy and unable to help. But I stumbled across his email again today and thought I'd share what he mentioned to me then:

My name is Tom Starr, and the Plato system impressed me greatly while I was a teenager living in Champaign, Illinois during the 1970’s. My brother-in-law, Mike Johnson, was an electrical engineer on the Plato project when I was high-school student, and he showed me the Plato system inside and out. I was amazed, and the experience inspired me to become an electrical engineer. I am a Distinguished Alumni of the University of Illinois with ECE and CS degrees. I work at AT&T as a network engineer.

Tom then described his book:

I have published a science fiction novel, Virtual Vengeance, largely inspired by the Plato system. This thrilling story is set in a world where teaching machines have become so effective that human teachers and classrooms have become obsolete. One of the last teachers in the world, a professor of computer science, discovers a problem lurking inside the ubiquitous teaching machines which leads to an adventure exploring artificial intelligence and what distinguished man from machine. The book’s introduction discusses the history of the Plato system. Virtual Vengeance has received many favorable reader reviews, see:

The novel has also received a positive professional literary review in the Kirkus review:

Be sure to check out Tom's book using the links above, or click on the book cover image at top.

Decades ago, another science fiction story appeared, in an anthology edited by Roger Elwood entitled Future City: A vision of Man's urban future in all new stories by 24 leading writers of science fiction. Among the authors of the stories were a young Dean Koontz, Virginia Kidd, Harlan Ellison, Frederik Pohl, Robert Silverberg, and one George Zebrowski.

George's story was entitled "Assasins of Air" and PLATO played a key role. PLATO is everywhere, though no longer free. The main character, Praeger, fixes up old cars and sells them to raise money to take PLATO lessons. New cars are electric, but old people in this story still value "the rush of power" (ha, they never sat in a Tesla P90D).

More recently, PLATO figured briefly in a short story, unfinished even, by none other than film critic legend Roger Ebert. While on his deathbed in the hospital, days before he would pass in 2013, his wife had suggested that he take a break from writing movie reviews, blog posts, and tweets, and try his hand at a science fiction story, something he loved when he was young. Roger did, and it was published online as "The Thinking Molecules of Titan" on The New Yorker's website. The story takes place in Roger's beloved Urbana, and includes this PLATO mention in the second paragraph:

“Later,” Alex said. Claire may possibly have nodded. They were leaning over shoeboxes filled with punch cards, part of their project to rebuild a museum working model of PLATO, the old computer program created on the Illinois campus in the nineteen-sixties. The Capital was a vaguely bohemian place, surrounded by disgusting undergraduate hangouts where underage students drank illegal beers. This, in Mason’s opinion, was the upside of their lamentable tendency to stand outside and lean over the sidewalk to vomit.

I doubt more than a handful of New Yorker readers had any notion what "PLATO" was, and I bet the vast majority of the story's readers assumed it was an invention of Roger's. Little did they realize that PLATO was something Roger was familiar with, going all the way back to January 1962, when he was a teenage reporter for the local paper.

I'd love to know if there are other science fiction stories or novels that mention or involve PLATO in some way. If you find any, let me know.

In a few hours, the NovaNET system will be shut down forever by its current owner, the Pearson corporation. It's the end of a very long journey -- and vision -- that began all the way back in 1960.

shutdown of NovaNET

Already, one of the last of the 's' system programmers has modified the TUTOR code to lesson "plato" (I love that NovaNET still uses lesson "plato"), so that no non-system-staff can sign in once the system shuts down tonight. The system will be up after that, but I'm told that tomorrow morning, the communications lines will be cut, so the axe really is coming down, and these are the final hours.

I can't help but be reminded of the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where Astronaut Dave goes into the inner sanctum of HAL and pulls out its memory banks one by one. Daisy, daisy, give me your answer do....

shutting down HAL

It's been a long journey. PLATO and NovaNET educated generations of people. NovaNET found a thriving market in the remedial and special-needs education segment. Unfortunately, it's not a very sexy market segment, and it hasn't been able to compete in recent years with web-based solutions. So it's going away. Along with it, hundreds (thousands?) of old notesfiles, many from the CERL PLATO days, along with many thousands of hours of lesson courseware and games, only some of which are on the cyber1 system. The rest, it appears, will be lost forever, unless someone, some thing, can convince Pearson to act. Good luck with that.

Congrats to David Lassner, a longtime PLATO user and administrator at University of Hawaii.

Here's the news story:

There will be a special 50th Anniversary of Plasma Display Panels event at this year's Society for Information Display conference in San Diego, at the San Diego Convention Center, on June 3, 2014. It begins at 5:00pm.

Donald Bitzer, co-inventor of Plasma Display Panel

Speakers include Don Bitzer, Larry Weber, Roger Johnson, and Tsutae Shinoda. There will be a cocktail reception afterwards, from 6:30-8:30pm.

Click here for: a downloadable PDF flyer of the event.

Click here for: The official event page at the SID DisplayWeek 2014 conference site

I've been told that this special celebration event is free and open to the public, and doesn't require registration at the SID DisplayWeek conference, which is great! I hope to see lots of folks there.

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)...

CERL entrance stairs

(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”:

105 *
106 *
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.
112 Mits
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
117 *
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
126 *
127 *
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
Dave Woolley.
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!

UPDATE: rayc/conn in the comments mentioned that there's more to the video and the interview --- additional info and extended interview q and a available here. Thanks Ray!

Louis A. BloomfieldLongtime 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 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.

Today comes word at the GigaOM news site and an article in Pando Daily that Cocomo, Inc.'s changing its name to Talko. Hmm, now where have we heard that before (here's Dave Woolley's 1994 article on Talkomatic).

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:

Trademark applications for Talko and Talkomatic

I also noticed that the domain "" was grabbed a little over a month after the PLATO@50 conference. The "" domain is also taken. Interestingly, those two plus "" and "" 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.

UPDATE no. 2 (March 17, 2013):
More speculation from the TechCrunch people. They haven't done their homework; haven't made the PLATO connection yet. Story from TechCrunch 3/14/2013 here. GigaOM has an article out too and it's as clueless as TechCrunch's. One of these days...

Eugene Jarecki was the guest on The Daily Show last night with Jon Stewart. Born in Connecticut in 1969, and a Princeton graduate, is a successful filmmaker with a string of compelling, award-winning movies. His latest is the prison and drug war documentary The House I Live In which is getting excellent reviews.

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!).

PLATO History: Emoticons examples, set 1

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:

PLATO History: Emoticons examples, set 2

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:

PLATO Welcome Page on Thanksgiving Day, 1973 showing a turkey instead of the clock

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...

Here is another example I have blogged about in the past: Valentine's Day, 1975.

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 patented reinvention of PLATO's innovation from the 1970s
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:

Donald Bitzer preparing for PLATO II demo held on March 11, 1961

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.

Read update at end of this post... the post's title is no longer true

Thanks to everyone who voted for this session proposal, "Lessons Learned from the First Online Newspaper in 1974." I just learned that it's been officially accepted into the program for the SXSW Interactive 2011 conference in Austin, TX in March.

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.

Congrats Larry!

For more on the story, here's a link to the CEA's own blog post.

The September 2010 issue of Illinois Alumni magazine, the official publication of the University of Illinois Alumni Assocation, has an article about the history of PLATO entitled In The Time Of PLATO: How Students at Illinois Created Today's Computer Technology 50 Years Ago by Mary Timmins.

Mentioned in the article are Dan Alpert, Don Bitzer, Roger Johnson, Ray Ozzie, C.K. Gunsalus, Lippold Haken, and Paul Tenczar.


Learn more about the book:

The Friendly Orange Glow: The Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, by Brian Dear

Support This Project

Please help support this important project to document and archive the history of the PLATO computer system and its online community. Your support is appreciated!

PLATO History on Twitter

Copyright ©2009-2010 PLATO History Foundation. PLATO® is a registered trademark of PLATO Learning, Inc.