December 2, 2022

The biggest computer network you’ve never heard of


Image: University of Illinois Distributed Museum

Almost 60 years ago, in the modest college towns of Urbana and Champaign, Ill., An educational computer system, built with federal funding acquired as part of the Space Race, made its debut. first steps towards existence.

It took more than a decade and four iterations for the central machine and its many terminals to reach their full potential. Everything had to be built from scratch.

And when these educational terminals finally became good enough for regular use, the thousands of connected high school and college students immediately used them to program many chat and game applications.

Such is the life of PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), the first widely used computer-assisted learning system. The technology, which in its fourth iteration, launched in 1972, had evolved into a networked computing platform based on a mixture of mainframes, terminals, telephone lines and custom programming tools, clearly inspired the following.

PLATO V terminal with plasma screen 1981 Image: Mtnman79 / Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most popular software ever, including Lotus Notes and Microsoft Flight Simulator, share a direct lineage with applications produced by students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and other nearby universities over 40 years ago. Many others, like Reddit, Twitter, and AOL, are clearly inspired whether their creators know it or not. And this platform has generated some of the earliest examples of digital culture, including emoticons and interactive stories.

Brian Dear, a former PLATO user at the University of Delaware, spent about two decades gathering all the information available about the system for his new book, The friendly orange glow (Pantheon, $ 40), released this week.

Dear, who conducted hundreds of interviews for the book, noted that the long development process, led by engineer Donald Bitzer, was necessary because they lacked the modern perks like open source software or the cloud. computing. All they had at first was really an idea and a complex and somewhat rickety machine built by the university called ILLIAC I, which was later upgraded to another mainframe.

“There was no software. There were no terminals. There was hardly any material. They literally had to invent everything from scratch, ”Dear noted in a telephone interview.

These constraints helped inspire one of PLATO’s most notable inventions, the flat panel plasma display (which, of course, had a monochrome orange glow). The screen design, which put individual dots on the screen rather than stored characters, circumvented the prohibitive cost of RAM at the time, which would have increased the cost of using a traditional monitor. Another key innovation of the Dear system is called “fast round-trip”, the ability to display network information on the screen instantly, without delay, which made terminals eye-catching despite slow modem speeds.

These innovations, among others, have enabled educators to create graphical and interactive teaching tools, especially as PLATO’s programming languages ​​have become more advanced. Students especially appreciated the machine’s capabilities and pushed its limits, developing the first multi-user dungeons, space games, forum software, and even popular online media that aggregated stories from print publications. One of these games, the Star Trek-theme Empire, is considered one of the first networked multiplayer action games ever to be produced and has often pushed the boundaries of the primitive platform. Eventually, games gave way to some of the early chat programs, like Talkomatic, which helped influence the PLATO platform as a whole. These innovations appeared despite the fact that there was no profit motive for the creation of new applications. It was all for social status and personal learning.

Despite these programs pushing the idea beyond its mission, the UIUC Computer Education Research Laboratory, which developed PLATO, has largely adopted a hands-off approach.

“What you’ve basically seen is the rise of these users turning this platform into a real community, and taking it in directions that no one – none of the adult supervisors, so to speak – anticipated. Dear explained. “Although luckily the adults noticed that it was all very powerful and compelling and turned a lot of things into, you know, official system functionality.”

You might be wondering: why am I hearing about it for the first time? And why did Dear have to write a 640-page book to highlight this long story?

The simple answer is that the eventual commercialization of PLATO, at the behest of the mainframe vendor and the eventual licensee Control Data Corporation, has not gone well, in part because its mainframe-based setup. was obsolete and in part because UIUC’s best innovations, like its plasma screen, did not become the commercial product – understandable since PLATO IV terminals cost between $ 5,000 and $ 7,000 each in 1972. It There were a few pockets of success in business and academia, but the dream of turning the network into a proto-AOL – started by Bitzer of the UIUC when the university first discussed the commercialization of technology – never happened.

Dear noted that he had enough material for three PLATO storybooks, which sounds impressive considering the amount of ground he covers here. The book picks up as soon as high school and UIUC students get their hands on keyboards, with Dear capturing a forgotten culture full of modern parallels, highlighting how some PLATO users, like the old Microsoft executive Ray Ozzie, staged their experiences. in later success. Dear spends a lot of time explaining complex systems from another era, almost out of necessity, but readers keen to learn more about the technique will be rewarded with anecdotes that truly show how these systems ultimately changed the world.

“There is so much history here and interesting stories of innovation and early examples of pretty much everything we take for granted today, and yet none of it has ever been known in the general public, ”Dear added.

It would take another generation for PLATO’s greatest lessons to truly take root in any meaningful way. But let it be known that Illinois had them first.

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