PLATO: An educational computer system from the 60s shaped the future

119 points1
theodpHN20 hours ago

If you're looking for a longer PLATO read, check out Brian Dear's definitive book: The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System

labrador18 hours ago

I stumbled on this book in the Menlo Park public library and really enjoyed it. I also wondered why I had never heard of PLATO. Very good read.

williamDafoe10 hours ago

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!

rbanffy1 hour ago

I felt it a bit confusing, going back and forth through time more than it'd be needed.

felixgallo16 hours ago

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.

actionfromafar13 hours ago

Stig Bjorklund?!

MichaelMoser12342 minutes ago

found these videos about the plato system

also there is

they mention that they were linked by a network, is it known what kind of transport protocol they were using on the CDC systems?

theodpHN19 hours ago

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

Khan Academy (2013) v. PLATO (1973)

pklausler13 hours ago

I still remember the awesome multiplayer fighter jet combat game!

williamDafoe10 hours ago

Brand Fortner's Airfight - it inspired Sublogic Inc. who wrote Microsoft flight simulator 2023.

NelsonMinar19 hours ago

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.

wombatpm12 hours ago

UIUC grad here. Used PLATO in 89 for a Physics E&M class. I had friends fail out due to Empire and Avatar guild reset.

In the works of the quiz answer parser:


jjwiseman9 hours ago

I was at UIUC in 1988. My first physics class used PLATO quite a lot and it was awesome. I loved going down to the computer lab in the basement of my dorm and using it.

welcome_dragon10 hours ago

Physics 333?

davidgerard12 hours ago

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.

waltbosz15 hours ago

My mom was a PLATO developer. She wrote computer based learning courses for it.

What I remember about PLATO was the games. I think there was one where you could drop a flower pot on Mickey Mouse's head. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

formvoltron15 hours ago

Wow that's so cool!

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.

retrocryptid15 hours ago

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.

djmips11 hours ago

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.

AlbertCory17 hours ago

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.

retrocryptid15 hours ago

That's true except for the bit about Plato terminals in the library. In the school across town, in the high-school in Springfield, and in colleges in Dover, Tallahassee and Dallas.

I mean sure. Except for those places, the only place you could find a multi-thousand dollar PLATO terminal was the old RF research building. And CDC headquarters and a one or two at Cray's lab.

dalke7 hours ago

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.

AlbertCory13 hours ago

Yeah, they could have joined the Internet revolution, but Minneapolis was the center for CDC and Cray, and they just missed it. Maybe "snooted it" is the better term.

dalke6 hours ago

Gopher, out of Minneapolis, was "the Internet revolution" for a year or so. .

com13 hours ago

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.

vipvipv17 hours ago

I think there is SOME truth to this. I remember being there and thinking if this could go beyond their confines but it never tookoff!:)

convolvatron17 hours ago

I used plato and found it pretty meh.

MECC on the other hand

AlbertCory13 hours ago

what was MECC?

convolvatron12 hours ago

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.

joezydeco12 hours ago

MECC also published software for the Apple ][, including the first version of Oregon Trail that kids played in schools.

8bitsrule10 hours ago

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.

convolvatron11 hours ago

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.

californiadreem18 hours ago

If you've ever enjoyed the game Rogue or roguelikes, Macromedia Flash, or the famous Mahjong Solitaire (among countless other influences), PLATO's influences are at hand.

You can also experience the wonders of PLATO through emulation:

ohjeez18 hours ago

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.

tpmx12 hours ago

While very impressive, I don't really see any clear signs/pieces of evidence that this effort shaped the future, though.

williamDafoe10 hours ago

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 . .

theodpHN10 hours ago

Computer History Museum DON BITZER 2022 Fellow

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.

dang20 hours ago

Related. Not much really. Others? A PLATO service for retro computing enthusiasts - - Aug 2022 (26 comments)

The PLATO Project - - Jan 2022 (1 comment) a modern implementation of the PLATO computing system - - Aug 2020 (1 comment)

John Hunter’s World Peace Game, Roger Ebert, and the PLATO System - - June 2020 (9 comments)

PLATO, Graphics, Time-sharing in 1960s - - Dec 2019 (1 comment)

PLATO Notes released 40 years ago today - - Oct 2019 (1 comment)

A Look Back at the 1960s PLATO Computing System - - March 2018 (45 comments)

When Star Trek’s Spock Met PLATO - - Dec 2017 (1 comment)

The Internet That Wasn’t: Review of “The Friendly Orange Glow” by Brian Dear - - Nov 2017 (24 comments)

The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System - - Nov 2017 (1 comment)

The Greatest Computer Network You’ve Never Heard of (PLATO) - - Nov 2017 (3 comments)

Performing History on PLATO: A Response to a Recent SIGCIS Presentation - - Oct 2017 (1 comment)

Want to see gaming’s past and future? Dive into the “educational” world of PLATO - - Nov 2016 (7 comments)

Ars Technica on the history of PLATO games - - Oct 2016 (1 comment)

PLATO (computer system) - - Nov 2013 (23 comments)

ryukafalz20 hours ago

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.

californiadreem18 hours ago

Second the recommendation. Great book.

atleastoptimal15 hours ago

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

userbinator8 hours ago

1980s: computers are inseparable from almost every part of our day to day lives

As someone who lived through that period, I don't think so. That description would be more applicable to ~2010+.

dmm106 hours ago

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.

Transportation: ""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. ""

Entertainment - video games:

""we saw the release of all-time classic games such as Pac-man (1980), Mario Bros (1983), The Legend of Zelda (1986), Final Fantasy (1987), Golden Axe (1988), etc.""

Financial - personal:

ATMs were quite common if no ubiquitous by the mid 1980's "" "The origins of the cashless society: cash dispensers, direct to account payments and the development of on-line real-time networks, c. 1965–1985" ""


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.)

atleastoptimal7 hours ago

Due to the telescoping nature of innovations it was likely a longer and more spaced out series of advances. Nevertheless in business computers were ubiquitous by the 1980s

edizms11 hours ago

Interesting since cryptocurrencies are in their 2nd decade now.