Before everything, there was PLATO
April 27, 2009 6:29 PM   Subscribe

Touch screen. Awesome graphics. Online community. No, I'm not talking about the latest handheld device to hit the market, I'm talking about Control Data's PLATO system. posted by WolfDaddy (31 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
At first I read that as the Dana PLATO system. I think that's different, tho.
posted by miss lynnster at 6:31 PM on April 27, 2009

Eerie, just about 2 hrs ago I was just thinking about the need to post a PLATO article in MetaFilter, and then I got distracted by the Sufjan Stevens article and home recording gear...

Realistically, I'm not ready to post my PLATO article for another few months from now, when opens up. Meanwhile, back to working on the interview transcripts.

Also: a plug for next year: stay tuned for news about a 2010 PLATO Conference to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of PLATO. To be held in Silicon Valley.

- Brian Dear
posted by brianstorms at 6:45 PM on April 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

When I was very young, maybe six years old (in 1978), I remember being led into my elementary school's basement to see a Plato terminal. And play computer games, cool! I believe it was a matching game, Concentration. And not just play games, they showed me I could play games with other people, sitting at their terminal somewhere else just like me! It made a huge impact on me, and I've spent the rest of my life pursuing networked communication.
posted by Nelson at 6:49 PM on April 27, 2009

OMG! You're the PLATO People guy!!!!
posted by WolfDaddy at 6:51 PM on April 27, 2009

There was a PLATO client for the Atari, and I ran it with long-distance dial-up 1200 baud connectivity. It was slow, yeah, but very very cool.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:01 PM on April 27, 2009

I never saw it but from the wiki apparently Plato IV was scary-good compared to the Apple II and TRS-80.

Moria, Empire. OOOOOOOH. JIMP.
posted by mrt at 7:30 PM on April 27, 2009

Damn. That Gary J. Wilson is a PIMP!
posted by zerokey at 7:42 PM on April 27, 2009

My grandfather worked for Control Data for many many years. He still has a bunch of awards and other mementos in his office from his time there. I'll have to let him know about the 2010 event- he still lives in San Jose and might really enjoy attending! Thanks, mefi!
posted by Wroughtirony at 8:21 PM on April 27, 2009

I hope this isn't too much of a self-pimp, but I did a column on a PLATO RPG a few months back.
posted by JHarris at 8:50 PM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

That was a great article JHarris, thanks!
posted by WolfDaddy at 8:54 PM on April 27, 2009

Dude, I just applied for a signon. I love stuff like this.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:02 PM on April 27, 2009

... Now part of our mythic past
Like dreams alit by amber glow
While network gaming was a blast
Ozymandias outlived Azmo

But you can never take from me
Skills honed by those typed lists of words
I speak of that gift from theB
That helps my thoughts ascend like birds

posted by cgk at 9:13 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ahhh, PLATO, PLATO, PLATO. In my seventies youth there were two universtity-affiliated networking systems that I and other chilluns weasled, wormed, worked, and otherwise pursued signons to: PLATO and the Indiana University cross-campus network hosted and maintained by the Wrubel (sp?) Comupting Center. It was easier to get access to the WCC network, not least because there were more access points.

The PLATO net, which connected IU to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana campus via a few terminals located in the Main Library building, had cachet! There were graphics! U of I Champaign is, of course, where HAL was going to come into the world in the late 1990s - ANY computer system associated with that campus HAD to be kickass!

I never scored a PLATO uid, though. Just some over-the-shoulder computing. The orange-on-black screens retain an iconic quality for me.
posted by mwhybark at 9:19 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Kinda fascinated by the TUTOR programming language... I wonder if any modern languages were influenced by it.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:23 PM on April 27, 2009

Also, Brian, it's not PLATO-specific, but my profile has a bit of info about the online community I did participate in, Note, which was an unauthorized threaded discussion forum that ran on the IU WCC network on a variety of hardware.

At least one other user on MeFi, grumblebee, was an active participant in that community, and the pics of a fragmentary hardcopy backup of a few days of Note linked to in my profile are his brother's.
posted by mwhybark at 9:29 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Playing around on my new account on What a weird, trippy computer system! Right now, I'm playing this bizarre racing game. I can't believe they had something like this back in the 70s!
posted by Afroblanco at 10:00 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh wow. Writing little short programs (in Logo maybe?) on a PLATO system may have been my very first experience with computers! I remember it as having a cool vector display... I must have been 7 or 8 years old. What a trip!
posted by otherthings_ at 10:27 PM on April 27, 2009

Ah. There. It was called Moonwar. I don't think anyone ever beat snarf. Rats. I know I didn't. I checked. There is a snarf here; it's not the same person.
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 10:44 PM on April 27, 2009

ROFLMAO! Second link. Top graphic. Two of the 4 statements are A & S of A/S/L.

Prescient, indeed.
posted by Xoebe at 11:15 PM on April 27, 2009

Those of us with PLATO accounts, we should form some kind of group there. Don't know if they'll let you change your group designation on a whim. They have some good, early MMORPGs actually.

I'm john harris/wikipdia, by the way.
posted by JHarris at 12:34 AM on April 28, 2009

I was just talking to my husband about this the other day. People talk about DARPA/ARPANet as the parent of the internet, but that was just the hardware. Browsers as we know them descended from NCSA Mosaic, which wouldn't have existed were it not for Eric Bina. As Eric Bina was a PLATO geek from way back, I can't help but think that PLATO is the Internet's other parent.

I went to University of Illinois from 1981-1993, when they threw me out with a Ph.D. I spent a lot of time in the main PLATO computer lab, otherwise known as "The Zoo". C-U was a mecca for PLATOites; many who lived in outflung areas would come to visit -- we had meetups long before Metafilter existed.

I was attracted by the social networking aspects of PLATO, particularly what would be known in the Metafilterverse as "relationshipfilter". There was a notesfile on PLATO called =prc (personal relationship center), another called =ipr (interpersonal relationships), and one called =sexnotes. I spent a lot of time giving advice on those, which seems either naive or oddly wise these days ("Why don't you just TALK to him?")

There was also a lightly moderated free-for-all called =pad, and a notorious members-only notefile called =slam. (I was not a member, because PLATO communities were as cliquish as a small town, and I was not a programmer, merely a community user.)

I never started a PLATO meme (nice btyping pome, cgk!) but I remember a few. Every now and then I find myself quoting one, such as "Have a pineapple" (with the implication of where to put it), "Waiting to wait, please wait", and "My sureness knows no bounds."

The most notable thing about my PLATO experience is that nothing about life in the Internet world shocks me -- we saw almost all of them. Online dating? I met two of my long-ago boyfriends on PLATO. Drunk emailing? Although we didn't call them emails, I got a few and wrote at least one. Internet addiction? A couple of my friends PLATO-gamed themselves out of college. Pranking a friend by posting a silly note to Facebook? On PLATO, that was called "derfing", named after some fellow named Fred. The only things I don't remember seeing in the PLATO community were spam and stalking, although I might be wrong about the latter.

I like the Internet better than PLATO. The interface is more elegant, the communities more varied, less cliquish. But I have more than my share of brain cells occupied with silly memes, stories both touching and bizarre, and maps of =avatar.

--formerly lleach/pasrf, laurie/pasrf, lauren/pasrf, my love life is/cursed, tabby/cat
posted by lleachie at 5:52 AM on April 28, 2009 [6 favorites]

...and also leach/engineer. (don't ask -- I was never an engineer). Sorry about the late add.
posted by lleachie at 8:02 AM on April 28, 2009

Heh, heh. I actually wrote some code for PLATO systems back in the late 70s. I worked for the College of Pharmacy at the University of Minnesota, and they actually randomized students to two different curricula, one "people-oriented" and the other "traditional". New courses were developed for the former, and the PLATO system was used as part of the instruction. It was, by today's standards, a clunky marriage of hardware and software, but conceptually way ahead of its time. Ah, memories.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:21 AM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I never did anything with PLATO when I was at the U of I in the early nineties, but there was still a terminal sitting in the Biology Library next to the spanking-new Macs. The urban legend was that Champaign-Urbana was a target for nuclear annihilation because of PLATO and NCSA, but I wondered if it was just wishful thinking on the part of the rest of the Big Ten.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:38 AM on April 28, 2009

I remember that rumor too, Halloween Jack ... of course, Iowa thinks it's a terrorism target because of its Krispy Kremes, so maybe there was some truth to PLATO as a nuclear target?
posted by lleachie at 12:31 PM on April 28, 2009

And Jesse Ventura thought he was the target of terrorists...
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:19 PM on April 28, 2009

I have a burning desire to try to spread some of those old PLATO memes, if just to give the 4chan guys something to go "huh?" about.

On the web... while I agree with much of what you say, let's not forget that the web is more than just the World Wide Web and graphical browsing. (It makes me sound like a fogey that, but it's still true dammit.)

I like to think that one of the reasons the internet exists is as a place to dump all our thoughts and feelings so, after we die, they're still around in some form, in the cloud. Well okay that might be wishful thinking, but dammit, I wish you'd do some more logging of your PLATO experiences. Memories of times like those should not be allowed to disappear.
posted by JHarris at 1:19 PM on April 28, 2009

JHarris -- I have to admit that, when I think of the Web, I do think mainly of graphical browsing and WWW, hence my hyperbolic statement. But well-meant.

There are LOTS of people I wish would do more logging of their PLATO experiences -- Brian Dear (Brianstorms) has done some documenting of these in his PlatoPeople site (referenced above), but these just scratch the surface.
posted by lleachie at 2:34 PM on April 28, 2009

PLATO user here - UIUC, 1981-85. I used it for classwork, but damn I can't remember which classes. I think one of them was a class where we studied the roots of words, and we took our tests on PLATO.

I thought the main screen was a large ascii art-ish visual of the word "PLATO", made up of letters, so the big "P" was made of dozens of letter Ps, and the big "L" was made of Ls and so on.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:07 PM on April 28, 2009

My stepfather was doing graduate stuff in computer science at Champagne/Urbana when we all met him. This was maybe 1977? I remember somehow coming with him to his office, in the basement of the most science-fictiony place I've ever been, where he plunked me down in front of a PLATO terminal with a Mountain Dew and a Nestle Crunch, and I played Ant War. I was 6 or 7. It remember it was awesome, but not much else. I have an undeserved sense of pride about it.

Relatedly, although unrelated: several years later my stepfather would also drag the reluctant 12 year old me to a lecture by Grace Hopper, and I have the same undeserved sense of pride about something I don't really remember. But I do still have the nanosecond she gave me, which is cool.
posted by dirtdirt at 10:06 AM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

i met my second girlfriend over the PLATO system! this was, lesseee...spring of 1988? she was a student at the university high school of U. of Ill., and i was at a geeky math & science high school up near chicago, and somebody thought it would be a great idea to give both schools a lab of PLATO terminals -- to network the nerds, as it were. we had a chat romance that got about as torrid as two nerds could over ASCII in that time and place, and just a few physical meetings before i got kicked out of that school, had a sort of breakdown and didn't even let her know when my family and i left that state shortly thereafter. always felt bad about that, but so it goes...that's the price of being an early adopter!

i also met my partner of 10 years now over the internet, and most of my relations with the ladies over the years betwixt had some element or other of networked computers involved. much like the automobile, the moving picture, rock & roll and cheap lager, the internet is an invention that really started taking off when people realized they could use it to GET LUCKY.
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 1:18 PM on April 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

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