Author bringing love letter to UI's PLATO system to its birthplace

Author bringing love letter to UI's PLATO system to its birthplace

URBANA — As a college freshman interested in music, Brian Dear was wandering through the University of Delaware music building one day in 1979, hearing an uncoordinated medley of musical instruments from various rooms when he noticed through a window a dark classroom filled with orange-glowing faces peering into computer monitors.

"People were reaching out and touching (musical) notes (on the monitor screens) that were lighting as they touched them," said Dear, who was instantly fascinated and walked in to the room where a big poster on the wall announced in magic marker, "Welcome to PLATO."

He chose a terminal and went through the PLATO demo, his face glowing from the all-orange words and graphics on the terminal screens.

"So I was drawn in and hooked pretty fast," said Dear, an intended English-journalism major who eventually left college to work on PLATO — the Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations computer system that was created on the University of Illinois campus in May 1960 and included instant messaging, chat rooms, message forums, an online newspaper and other innovations long before Facebook and Google came along.

And now, after nearly 30 years of intermittent research on PLATO, Dear has finished a book on the innovative system, titled "The Friendly Orange Glow."

His nationwide book tour will stop at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the UI campus where it all began. Anyone interested in the PLATO story or those who remember using it or working with it in some aspect can join in the event at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center that will include a presentation by Dear, readings from the book, and questions and answers.

Like the UI and other university campuses during Dear's freshman year, the University of Delaware had its own PLATO system, in which Dear immersed himself, becoming a programmer.

"But the real cool kids were all in some strange town named 'Urbana,' which I had never heard of," he said.

Within a year of walking into that dark classroom, Dear made his first pilgrimage to Urbana, where PLATO was created by Donald Bitzer, a former UI professor who earned his bachelor's, master's and doctorate, all in electrical engineering, on the Urbana campus.

Bitzer was handpicked at 26 years old to lead the project, Dear said, that had the "crazy idea" of using a computer to teach students.

The first project work was done on the UI's 5-ton ILLIAC computer, and the first PLATO had just one terminal, but by PLATO IV in 1972, the UI and partner Control Data were using touch-screen plasma terminals — a growing technology in today's flat-screen televisions.

"Bitzer was the real visionary and driver behind everything," said Dear, adding that the UI campus, with its reputation for engineering and science, was filled with "absolutely brilliant people" who dove into this project with great fervor.

Dear said he met a lot of people like that on his first trip to Champaign-Urbana in the early '80s.

"I was completely blown away," he said.

Many others between 1961 and the 1980s were like Dear, hooked on PLATO, with systems on university campuses across the nation, even the world, and in elementary schools, like in C-U.

"It was kind of a primitive internet," Dear said, explaining that a lot of the PLATO systems were interconnected. You could send messages, and message forums were connected, and you could read about popular topics, Dear said, or people's reviews or debates of books and television shows.

"It was a thriving community that extended around the country and in and around parts of the world, too," said Dear, adding that the number of people using it was significant, contrasting it with the ARPANET, which is credited as the foundation of today's internet. "The ARPANET — it did not get bigger than PLATO in terms of people until the early '80s."

Throughout his career, Dear has toggled between pursuing technology and software start-up businesses and researching PLATO, continually reaching out through in-person and telephone interviews and emails to about 1,000 people who had something to do with PLATO.

In 1996, Dear created a website about his project, listing all his sources, and it developed into a gold mine of information and contacts about PLATO as others began contacting him.

"It was the best thing I ever did," he said, explaining that he got some extraordinary, personal recollections from people about their own time on PLATO, providing "an absolute gold mine of quotable material."

Dear recalled talking with Brian Stone, chief of staff at the National Science Foundation, who grew up in Urbana and used PLATO. Dear said he excitedly recounted how he was in the PLATO junior programmer group, but the best part was going to the UI campus on Sunday mornings to play games on PLATO, like Empire, a Star Trek game with low-tech graphics but complex user choices and multiple players.

One anecdote that didn't make the book, Dear said, was the fact that Roger Ebert wrote one of the first articles ever written about PLATO, a two-part series in January 1962 as a cub reporter for The News-Gazette.

"He was fascinated with it his whole life. He gave a presentation at the TED conference just before he died, and he talked about PLATO. I suspect, at the time, some in the audience didn't have any idea what he was talking about," said Dear, who did not interview Ebert about PLATO. "I never had the chance to interview him, and I wish I had."

Despite that, he had plenty of material, a massive amount — 7 million words of interview transcripts alone. Although he had enough for three volumes of books, Dear organized it into the three-part book.

"It's a very rich history," he said of the PLATO story. "And so much of it happened right there in Champaign-Urbana."

Book it

What: A celebration of the release of Brian Dear's book, 'The Friendly Orange Glow,' about the UI-created PLATO system.

When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Where: Alice Campbell Alumni Center Ballroom, 601 S. Lincoln Ave., U.

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friendyorangeglow wrote on November 10, 2017 at 7:11 am

FYI Donald Bitzer was 26 years old in 1960 when he started PLATO.

friendyorangeglow wrote on November 10, 2017 at 7:11 am

FYI Donald Bitzer was 26 years old in 1960 when he started PLATO.