In the 1960s, researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign developed a computer system that they hoped would expand access to education. They envisioned instructors using the system to build lessons, and students stationing themselves at machines—whose touch-screen plasma displays had a distinct orange glow—to complete coursework.
But something unexpected happened. As the system began to catch on, students quickly spun its best features—which included emoticons, chat rooms, and email—into an early social network of sorts.
“Many features we’d take for granted in AOL chat rooms many years later, such as instant messaging and opening chat rooms with multiple people—all of that was available in what was called Talk-o-Matic on PLATO,“ says Brian Dear, author of The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture.
On Sunday at the 2018 South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, Dear shared his research on the history of PLATO (which stands for Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), and its strange evolution from educational tool to a platform for bustling online communities that predated the era of personal computing. Dear’s book is available at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
PLATO, which was invented by electrical engineering professor Donald Bitzer, was originally housed at the University of Illinois’ Computer-based Education Research Laboratory (CERL). Eventually, universities around the United States and the rest of the world installed more than a thousand PLATO terminals. Many of them could connect to systems on other campuses through telephone lines.
Before long, this pioneering system boasted more users than the experimental computer network known as ARPANET. But PLATO has now been largely forgotten (a fate that also befell other early networks and time-sharing services such as Tymnet). Meanwhile, ARPANET went on to support the World Wide Web.
PLATO's slow fade into obscurity can't be explained away by technical glitches or poor user design. In fact, the system proved quite popular and far more flexible than even its founders could have predicted.
As Dear tells it, students were far more interested in using PLATO to chat with one another than to complete their lessons. They even created their own emoticons by taking advantage of a feature within PLATO’s operating system that allowed them to stack letters on top of each other instead of typing them side by side. Typing the word “WOBTAX” in a stack produced a smiley face.
“This was a great pastime of many undergraduates, many of whom would flunk out of school for stuff like this,” Dear says. He adds that those early communities were also rife with problems that still exist today—including phishing, catfishing (sharing false information online about one’s identity), and password theft.
PLATO also included a feature very familiar to modern app users: a typing-awareness indicator akin to the three dots that pop up in Facebook Messenger, Google Chat, or in iMessage when someone is typing. But instead of using dots to indicate that a message was being typed, PLATO revealed every single character that a person typed, as they were typing it.
Students also spent a lot of time playing games on PLATO—a pastime that Dear says proved somewhat embarrassing to the University of Illinois, which had invested heavily in building a serious system for educational purposes.
“Out of the top 10 programs on PLATO running any day, most were games,” Dear says. “They used more CPU time than anything else.” In one popular game called Empire, players blasted each other’s spaceships with phasers and torpedoes in order to take over planets.
Dear himself worked with PLATO in 1979 as a freshman at the University of Delaware, which had 450 terminals on its campus. Then in 1984, he was running a PLATO lab for the University of Maryland when he noticed that someone else in an online chat room was using a terminal at his former desk in another lab on campus. He sent a message to that user; she would later become his wife.
Dear hopes that sharing the story of PLATO can clear up a few misconceptions about the history of computing and online networks. Among them is the mistaken belief that online education is a new idea. “You could take, in the mid-60s, for full college credit, several courses through PLATO,” Dear says. And though many people assume social networks sprung up only after the first personal computers were sold, online communities existed long before most people had a computer at home.
Dear also argues that with PLATO’s demise, the field of computing lost out on features and settings that could have been quite valuable today. For example, the entire PLATO system was designed with social sharing in mind, he says, whereas the modern Internet is more fundamentally suited to fetching websites and documents.
“Imagine if today, iOS or Linux had built-in libraries of code that allowed anyone to build a social application that didn’t require cutting a deal with Facebook or using their APIs,” Dear says. “[With PLATO], the API was in the operating system, and it allowed any app to be social. That was kind of the assumption that the PLATO people had.”
Another helpful feature that no longer exists was called Term Comment. It allowed users to leave feedback for developers and programmers at any place within a program where they spotted a typo or had trouble completing a task.
To do this, the user would simply open a comment box and leave a note right there on the screen. Term Comment would append the comment to the user’s place in the program so that the recipient could easily navigate to it and clearly see the problem, instead of trying to re-create it from scratch on their own system.
“That was immensely useful for developers,” Dear says. “If you were doing QA on software, you could quickly comment, and it would track exactly where the user left this comment. We never really got this on the Web, and it’s such a shame that we didn’t.”
Sadly, few PLATO terminals still exist. As Dear describes in his book, PLATO’s gradual extinction came from a series of missteps. Its creators were so focused on education that they failed to consider other, potentially more lucrative uses for their system. And it was hard to get schools to buy in, because at the time, each terminal cost US $8,000, plus $12,000 per year in telephone bills to operate it.