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PLATO: The Seed Of The Social Computing Fabric

Plato, the philosopher, captured the sense of the Socratic Dialogue as a process of exploration and teaching. Dialogue becomes the medium through which philosophical thinking is distributed. The computer system called PLATO created a social computing fabric through which educational experiences were allowed to unfold.

The preliminary discussions about what would eventually become the PLATO system began in the shadow of the cold war and the 1957 launch of sputnik. The first PLATO system was launched in 1960 and operated on the Illiac 1 computer at the University of Illinois. Eventually the PLATO system would evolve through four architectures. The system that enabled what we would recognize as social computing was launched as the 60s rambled to a close:

In 1972 a new system named PLATO IV was ready for operation. The PLATO IV terminal was a major innovation. It included Bitzer’s orange plasma display invention which incorporated both memory and bitmapped graphics into one display. This plasma display included fast vector line drawing capability and ran at 1260 baud, rendering 60 lines or 180 characters per second. The display was a 512×512 bitmap, with both character and vector plotting done by hardwired logic. Users could provide their own characters to support rudimentary bitmap graphics. Compressed air powered a piston-driven microfiche image selector that permitted colored images to be projected on the back of the screen under program control. The PLATO IV display also included a 16-by-16 grid infrared touch panel allowing students to answer questions by touching anywhere on the screen.

It was also possible to connect the terminal to peripheral devices. One such peripheral was the Gooch Synthetic Woodwind (named after inventor Sherwin Gooch), a synthesizer that offered 4 voice music synthesis to provide sound in PLATO courseware. This was later supplanted on the PLATO V terminal by the Gooch Cybernetic Synthesizer, which had 16 voices that could be programmed individually or combined to make more complex sounds. This allowed for what today is known as multimedia experiences.

Recently PLATO was thrust into my attention again through Jon Udell’s conversation with Brian Dear about the upcoming 50th Anniversary of the system via ITconversations:

Jon Udell / Brian Dear on PLATO
Plato Turns 50

Brian Dear is working on a book on PLATO and is involved in PLATO HISTORY, remembering the future, the celebration of this innovative system at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Dear began using the system in 1979. In an excerpt from a conversation on the WELL, Dear describes how PLATO planted the seed of social computing:

PLATO was the first computer system, network really, that scaled with lots of people.  It was bigger than ARPANET at least for a while, with many capabilities at a level of usage that we wouldn’t see until the 1990s.  A PLATO user didn’t use a computer, they “belonged” to the system.  It was a community.  For me, I was drawn immediately to this sense that a computer wasn’t for number-crunching or lonely things like word processing, spreadsheets, or video games, the way Apples, Commodores, etc were being used, but it was a “place” where you could meet, interact, stay in touch, get answers to questions, and share and make discoveries.

While PLATO is not well known, even among the current set of social technologists, there are some interesting threads and connections to the current story of our networked real-time computing environment. When we think of the roots of modern computing, we look to Xerox Parc and Doug Englebart’s Augmentation Research Center, but as personal computing expands into social computing, PLATO deserves a place in that pantheon. From the undependable Wikipedia entry we see the connections forming:

Early in 1972, researchers from Xerox PARC were given a tour of the PLATO system at the University of Illinois. At this time they were shown parts of the system such as the Show Display application generator for pictures on PLATO (later translated into a graphics-draw program on the Xerox Star workstation), and the Charset Editor for “painting” new characters (later translated into a “Doodle” program at PARC), and the Term Talk and Monitor Mode communications program. Many of the new technologies they saw were adopted and improved upon when these researchers returned to Palo Alto, California. They subsequently transferred improved versions of this technology to Apple Inc..

The direct link from Plato to the present future of computing runs through a young man from Chicago who began attending the University of Illinois in 1973. Abandoning the punch cards that were the staple of computer science at the time, he was drawn like a moth to the glowing orange gas-plasma screens in CERL (the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory).

Ray Ozzie, now Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect, threw himself into the world of Plato. In fact, Plato Notes, was a strong influence on Lotus Notes. Ozzie has understood software from the beginning as operating in a networked social computing environment. But more than that, it gave Ozzie insight into the potential for human contact through this new medium:

One incident in particular introduced Ozzie to the magic that comes when people connect via computer. He had taken a part-time assignment helping a professor finish writing some courseware. The prof lived on the other side of town, so Ozzie collaborated with him remotely. Ozzie came to know and like his boss, save for one annoyance. “He was the worst typist ever,” Ozzie says. “He was very eloquent on email, but on Term Talk it was just dit-dit-dit, sometimes an error, but agonizingly slow.” At the end of the project, the man threw a party at his house, and Ozzie discovered the reason for the typing problem: The professor was a quadriplegic and had been entering text by holding a stick in his teeth and poking it at the keyboard. Ozzie was floored. “I remember really questioning my own attitudes,” Ozzie says. “I had been communicating with him mind to mind.

During the day, the Plato system was dedicated to the task of educating students, but after 10pm the programmers and users were allowed to play on the system.

The Plato system is still alive and has been transplanted to the World Wide Web. You can find it at:

For those of you in the Bay Area, the 50th Anniversary of Plato will be celebrated at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View on June 2nd and 3rd, 2010. Dr. Donald Bitzer, the founder of Plato, and Ray Ozzie will be in attendance. I’ll definitely be there to help remember the future of computing.

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  1. I hope you were able to attend the PLATO rewind at the Computer History Museum. They played all the hits.

  2. Sherwin Gooch Sherwin Gooch

    I loved the PLATO Project. I was a PLATO addict from 1969 through 1982. One of the main reasons I stayed in school was so that I could continue to have access to PLATO’s “big iron” mainframe via my student job. I owe 90% of what I know about computers and computing to Rick Blomme, Don Lee, and Jack Stifle of UIUC PLATO. It has taken many years for much of what evolved on PLATO to evolve on the internet. Hopefully this evolution will continue.n –Sherwin Goochn

  3. a reader a reader

    it would be courteous to first ask permission before appropriating someone’s photograph from their website and posting a copy on your own

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