no Dr. Chandra
December 9, 2017 9:06 AM   Subscribe

In 1961, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign created a computer networking system that would have messaging, avatars, online gaming (and most famously, Empire), smileys, doodles, and message boards: How the PLATO system, a pre-internet online platform that first came to life at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the 1960s, quietly fostered some of the first digital natives.

Brian Dear wrote a book on the history of PLATO: The Friendly Orange Glow: . He did an ask-me-anything on Reddit, and his blog is PLATO history.

Was PLATO The Internet That Wasn't? The harbinger of all online activities? A neat transnational toy? A too-little known piece of digital history? The first online social network? PLATO, previously

Want to see gaming’s past and future? Dive into the “educational” world of PLATO

PLATO Notes released 40 years ago today
The idea was that users would write notes and system people would respond to them,” Woolley told me. He had never seen an online bulletin board or conferencing forum application—other computer labs and projects around the country were also tinkering with very early forms of message boards but none of that was on PLATO’s or Woolley’s radar at the time. “I went off and used my imagination and wrote it the way it seemed natural to me, I didn’t have a thought to go on,” he said.
The new Notes had one very specific purpose: create a real program that provides the long-needed security and authentication to the old text-file “notes” so that the PLATO community could ask questions and get answers safely and reliably without having to rely on an honor system.
Jimmy Maher, the Digital Antiquarian (previously), has more:
The First CRPGs
I could easily devote a whole series of posts to PLATO, the first sustained online community to connect everyday people — mostly students from elementary to university age — together. I’ll just give you the short version here, though, and mention that PLATO was remarkable indeed in many ways, laboratory of countless innovations, from the vision of computer-assisted instruction that spawned it in the first place to the uniquely user-friendly custom operating system it ran to its TUTOR programming language that let anyone design new “lessons.” Uniquely amongst institutional systems, its terminals offered graphics and, if your school had chosen to spring for some additional gadgetry, possibly even some sound and music capabilities.
Silas Warner And Muse Software
PLATO programs — optimistically called “lessons” — were programmed in a language called TUTOR that was accessible to every user. This relatively easy-to-use language enabled much of the creativity of the PLATO community. It allowed educators and students with no knowledge of the vagaries of bits and bytes to design serviceable programs while also being powerful enough to create some surprisingly elaborate games, from dungeon crawls to flight simulators, board-game adaptations to shoot-em-ups. Many if not most of these games were multiplayer; you simply navigated to a “big board” of eager players, found a partner (or two, or more; some could support more than 50 simultaneous players, amounting to virtual worlds in their own right as well as games), and dived in. In addition to his more legitimate activities, Silas became deeply involved with this generally tolerated-if-not-encouraged side of PLATO.
The Roots Of Sir-Tech
One of the most popular games on PLATO at the time (and one of the system’s legendary titles even today) was a space wargame called Empire. It’s a game we’ve brushed up against before on this blog: Silas Warner helped its designer, John Daleske, with its early development, and later developed a variant of his own. Robert believed it would be possible to write a somewhat stripped-down version of the game for the Apple II. Progress was slow at first, but after a few months Robert bought the brand-new Apple Pascal and fell in love with it. He designed and programmed Galactic Attack in Pascal during the latter half of 1979. Demonstrating that blissful ignorance of copyright that marked the early software industry, he not only swiped the design pretty much whole-cloth from Daleske but made his alien enemies the Kzinti, a warlike race from Larry Niven’s Known Space books.
PLATO lives on, at cyber1.
posted by the man of twists and turns (10 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Oh man, Empire and Space Empire were my jam back in the BBS days. Thank you, PLATO!
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:17 AM on December 9, 2017

One of my earliest memories of computers was in ~1979 at the age of 7 or so, being taken into the basement of my elementary school to be shown the PLATO system. It was a special thing done just for me, I was precocious in math and I think some kind teacher wanted to inspire a little kid. The thing I remember seeing was the game Concentration. But the really cool part, you were playing with another person somewhere else on the network. That made a huge impression on me. Years later I would save up my bicycle delivery money to buy my first modem so I could do that myself.
posted by Nelson at 9:17 AM on December 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

I went to UIUC and PLATO was my first experience with online forums. It wasn't so different from Metafilter - full of in-jokes, site-specific vocabulary, and a high percentage of bright witty people to talk to.
posted by Daily Alice at 10:51 AM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Man, I was confused by this because to me Empire means this.
posted by Slothrup at 11:08 AM on December 9, 2017

I got to play around with PLATO a little at UIUC in the early nineties, although it seemed almost comically clunky by then, almost dieselpunk in its esthetics. I had just discovered Usenet and thought that that was the shiznit, and Neal Stephenson (who I'd thought of as the writer of The Big U) had just published Snow Crash. In the meantime, a couple of bright CompSci students were writing Mosaic a few blocks away. Sic transit gloria cyberspace.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:31 PM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, this is so cool - thank you!

My experience with PLATO was doing interactive language lessons, which I thought were GREAT. I still have very fond memories of them.

I had no idea PLATO offered such a rich set of tools and nurtured a whole community.

What a great post!
posted by kristi at 1:57 PM on December 9, 2017

~1971 my very dedicated—but not particularly popular— Latin teacher arranged an after school field trip to U of I to see some computer and pissed off everyone by making attendance mandatory. I image we expected to see people feeding punch cards into a machine or maybe watch lights blinking in panels—whatever she had come up with was virtually guaranteed to fall short of primetime tv in terms of entertainment value.

I don't remember a lot about the experience, but I do remember using a keyboard to manipulate stick figures on a screen—it was like nothing we had seen before. Needless to say, our little minds were blown and our regard for Mrs. Depaw briefly* inched up a notch or two. (*Fickle teenagers.)
posted by she's not there at 2:20 PM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

When I was 12 or so, my friend's mom worked for Control Data and for a sleep over she borrowed a portable dial-up PLATO terminal. I want to say that used an old-fashioned acoustic coupler modem. We played all kinds of games, especially the "educational" ones late into the night. After everyone else had gone to sleep, I tried the flight simulator where I flew an X-15, panicked when I ran out of gas, and was so proud of myself for landing it anyway. I only learned later that that's how the plane operated.
posted by ob1quixote at 5:43 PM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Instead of punting $120/yr on Apple Music my evil plan has been to buy $100 worth of Apple Store cards when they go on sale every christmas season. Having tons of bucks on my balance now, getting the Orange Glow book was a no-brainer and it's been a good read.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 9:27 PM on December 9, 2017

In the late 1970s, at what was then Urbana Junior High, I played kids' math games like Ant Wars and Pizza on a PLATO terminal. Later I attended the lab school across the street from CERL, the fictional home of HAL 9000 and the real home of a very busy PLATO lab. I made friends through multiplayer games and groupnotes, messed around writing in Tutor, and was one of the many people Brian Dear interviewed for that book.
posted by salix at 9:22 PM on December 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

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