URBANA – The PLATO computer system at the University of Illinois innovated both in hardware – including plasma display and touch screens – and software – educational innovations, email, interactivity with other users and even instant messaging as early as 1961.
It was even the first cable system in town, its creator says. There were many promising fields created by the tool developed by Donald Bitzer, then a UI professor and now at North Carolina State University, where he uses his digital prowess to study genomics.
Bitzer earned his bachelor's degree in 1955, his master's degree in 1956 and his doctorate in 1960, all in electrical engineering, from the Urbana campus. He was assigned the task of creating what became PLATO - "Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations" - in May 1960.
Bitzer continues to be surprised by what PLATO hath wrought. A Chicago reporter reported on an early version of PLATO, and made several mistakes, including saying the screen was full color – Bitzer joked that this was true if you thought orange was the only color.
Another paper picked up the story and headlined it "Vision plate may replace television."
Bitzer showed a copy of the article at the "50 Years of Public Computing" celebration Thursday at Alice Campbell Alumni Center. The event continues today. A schedule is online.
In the margins, a colleague noted that such claims were "exaggerated."
As it turns out ... not so much. Bitzer notes that plasma TV screens are likely to become ever more popular in the near future, because they have the best display for 3-D.
PLATO still thrives now, for instance in Pearson's NovaNET Courseware based on old PLATO lessons, but its formative years were not without challenges.
Another PLATO pioneer, mathematics professor Peter Braunfeld, reminded the audience that the first work was done on the UI's ILLIAC computer. He noted that, at five tons, the computer had one kilobyte of memory per ton.
Bitzer also talked about memory storage, and the early use of magnetic tapes, fragile paper (teletype) tapes, and the once-ubiquitous but largely forgotten IBM punch cards. He recalled how students had to bring their programs to a haughty campus administrator who decided when to run the program at her convenience.
The first PLATO had one terminal. By PLATO IV in 1972, the UI and partner Control Data were using touch-screen plasma terminals, solving a longtime technical puzzle, "gas in glass" screens, Bitzer said, by putting electrodes "outside the glass."
Early versions also had extremely limited keyboards, with a handful of keys serving different purposes in different situations. The keyboard did have what may be the first "help" key, which took the user through a lengthy process. When the concept was understood, the user hit a literal "Aha!" key to go back to home, the creator said.
Outside the conference, Bitzer also talked about the forerunners of all video games to come on PLATO, including "Empire," a Star Trek game with low-tech graphics but complex user choices, as well as being among the first multi-player games. A dungeon adventure game called Avatar was also wildly popular among the late-night Mountain-Dew drinking denizens of dozens of halls where the terminals were found.
Bitzer also talked about the many language programs that flourished on PLATO, including a Latin program by Professor Richard Scanlan, who died last year.
Here are photos from the UI's Archives of PLATO over the years.