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A response to a presentation about PLATO that was given at the recent SIGCIS Command Lines conference at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA:

Eugene Jarecki was the guest on The Daily Show last night with Jon Stewart. Born in Connecticut in 1969, and a Princeton graduate, is a successful filmmaker with a string of compelling, award-winning movies. His latest is the prison and drug war documentary The House I Live In which is getting excellent reviews.

He and his brothers are now all filmmakers, all successful. His brother Andrew was CEO and co-founder of MovieFone and has done a number of interesting, notable films, and Nicholas, who was born in 1979, just recently came out with the Richard Gere financial thriller Arbitrage which also got very good reviews.

But in terms of PLATO history, what's interesting is that the Jarecki family (the father is the psychologist and successful commodities investor Dr. Henry Jarecki) was one of the only families in the entire world to have a private PLATO terminal in their home during the early to mid-1970s. That made Eugene was one of the first kids in the world to grow up online in the sense we mean it today: in addition to access to countless hours of online courseware (he loved the Sentences lesson), he also had access to the notesfiles, chat rooms, instant messaging, and addictive multiplayer games, not to mention having the experience commonplace today of every day (if not every minute) something new, exciting, and distracting happening online. He got an early, and heavy, dose of what was coming decades later.

Even years later, Jarecki vividly remembered playing games on PLATO. "The addiction never goes away," Eugene told me in a 2003 interview for the book. "So I would always be happy to play Empire."

He was particularly fond of the orange glow that emanated from his family's PLATO terminal's flat-panel display. "The thing with the orange glow," he told me, "is it remains to this day the most pleasing color palette I've seen, that sort of weird cloudy screen? It's like dark, you honestly felt that behind that screen that there was miles of space." He's not the only one who felt that way.

Roger Ebert (@ebertchicago) just tweeted the following: "30 years ago today, scientist Scott Fahlman suggested the use of a colon, a hyphen, and a parenthesis to represent happy and sad faces." Right. Meanwhile, PLATO users had been doing emoticons for a full decade prior.

UPDATE: this week there are tons of news articles and digital media "reporters" writing articles celebrating the "30th birthday" of Internet ASCII emoticons, blithely ignoring the important and substantial usage of emoticons by thousands of PLATO users all through the 1970s.

I originally wrote the following text back in September 2002, but it is still as valid now as it was then, and considering all the news this month about the "30th anniversary of emoticons" I figured it was time to trot out some facts about PLATO's own history that goes back much further. So here again is my writeup on PLATO emoticons. in an edited form. Much more will be coming in my upcoming book.

The news is floating around the Web right now about the "discovery" of the first online emotion-conveying icon or "emoticon." What readers and reporters are apparently not aware of is that the emoticon or "smiley" being discussed is the first ASCII smiley. Compared to PLATO's emoticons, the ASCII ones were downright primitive, usually requiring you to turn your head sideways to "get" the joke.

Like so many things, PLATO was doing emoticons and smileys, online and onscreen, years earlier. In fact,emoticons on PLATO were already an art form by 1976. PLATO users began doing smiley characters probably as early as 1972 (when PLATO IV came out), but possibly even earlier on PLATO III (still to be determined... old-timer PLATO III users please speak up!).

PLATO History: Emoticons examples, set 1

A close-up of some famous PLATO emoticons. There were thousands.

How were these things done? Well, on PLATO, you could press SHIFT-space to move your cursor back one space -- and then if you typed another character, it would appear on top of the existing character. And if you wanted to get real fancy, you could use the MICRO and SUB and SUPER keys on a PLATO keyboard to move up and down one pixel or more -- in effect providing a HUGE array of possible emoticon characters. So if you typed "W" then SHIFT-space then "O" then SHIFT-space then "B", "T", "A", "X", all with SHIFT-spaces in between, all those characters would plot on top of each other, and the result would be the smiley as shown above in the "WOBTAX" example.

Below are just some examples of smileys and emoticons collected from lesson =m4= on PLATO in the mid 1970s:

PLATO History: Emoticons examples, set 2

Emoticons were widely used on PLATO. You'd see people include them in messages, in chats (instant messaging was called TERM-talk and chat rooms were available in =talkomatic=). It was just part of the culture, once you started seeing someone posting them, you wanted to know how they did that; you learned, and then you started doing it too! The sideways-looking ASCII emoticons of other systems were primitive compared to what you saw on PLATO.

By the way, an interesting dissertation on emoticons and such was done by Janet Asteroff in 1987. The dissertation is called Paralanguage in Electronic Mail: A Case Study. It mentions the Scott Fahlman proposal. Alas, the dissertation never mentions PLATO...

Today the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued a patent to Google for its Google Doodles feature, wherein the company's home page logo is customized on certain holidays or days to commemorate a certain person, place, or thing.

Problem is, this is not Sergey Brin's or Google's invention. It is PLATO's. (And who knows, there might have been prior art even before the early to mid 1970s when the practice was commonplace on PLATO's "welcome page.")

Consider that Sergey Brin was born on August 21, 1973. Thanksgiving day that year fell on November 22, 1973. On that day, the PLATO welcome page looked like this:

PLATO Welcome Page on Thanksgiving Day, 1973 showing a turkey instead of the clock

Sergey Brin, inventor of the customized welcome to celebrate a holiday, was just 93 days old. I know he was brilliant, but I didn't think he was that brilliant. I also didn't know he had an author signon on the CERL PLATO system. The things one learns...

Here is another example I have blogged about in the past: Valentine's Day, 1975.

Now, a persnickety IP lawyer might say, but look, what Google is claiming is a customized logo not a customized clock. On PLATO welcome pages, when a special day arrived, the clock was customized, not the logo. To which i would say, you're being persnickety and that is not the point. The general idea is identical. Top of fold, most prominent thing on the introductory page of a computer service gets customized for special occasions to attract user attention and have a little fun in the process. End of story.

Here's an example of a Google Doogle celebrating Thanksgiving 2010:.

Google's patented reinvention of PLATO's innovation from the 1970s
Google's 2010 Thanksgiving welcome page. 37 years after PLATO.

(Thanks to a tip from "theodp", whose actual name I have never known in all the years he or she has been emailing me.)

It was fifty years ago today that a then 27-year-old electrical engineering PhD whiz kid named Don Bitzer, along with mathematician colleague Peter Braunfeld, demonstrated the PLATO II system to the assembled dignitaries, including David Dodds Henry, the President of the University of Illinois. The event was called the "President's Faculty Conference on Improving Our Educational Aims in the Sixties" and was attended by over 100 faculty members and assorted guests.

It's a significant date because it was a very early public demonstration not only of computer-based education, but also of time-sharing and remote access of a computer system. The demo was held at the Allerton House, 30 miles to the west of the University of Illinois' ILLIAC computer at the Coordinated Sciences Laboratory.

Here's a photo from March 10th, showing Don seated on the floor, talking on the phone, trying to get things to work between Allerton and the PLATO lab back at the university:

Donald Bitzer preparing for PLATO II demo held on March 11, 1961

Note the keyboard on the chair on the left. It has about 16 keys. Home-made. Built-from scratch. And the "monitor" on the chair on the right is, you guessed right, a cheap black-and-white TV.

The demo was a big success and helped propel the PLATO project forward. Within two years would arrive PLATO III, running on a more powerful CDC 1604 computer. PLATO II was a proof of concept that PLATO could run with simultaneous users, in this case two, but the idea was "N", as in, if you can run two users, it might as well be N users, with N limited merely by memory, CPU, and other resources.

Read update at end of this post... the post's title is no longer true

Thanks to everyone who voted for this session proposal, "Lessons Learned from the First Online Newspaper in 1974." I just learned that it's been officially accepted into the program for the SXSW Interactive 2011 conference in Austin, TX in March.

This talk is based on a chapter I've written for my upcoming book The Friendly Orange Glow, about the story of Red Sweater and his Red Sweater News Service aka NewsReport, which I argue is the the world's first online newspaper and blog.

UPDATE: Seems that SXSW did NOT in fact accept my proposal, but decided on their own to sign me up for something else that I did not even propose to them! Sigh. So, forget SXSW.

Dr. Larry Weber, who worked on the PLATO plasma panel project at CERL back in the day, and who participated in the hardware session at the PLATO @ 50 conference (watch the video here), was one of thirteen individuals inducted into the Consumer Electronics Association's CE Hall of Fame 2010 class. Dr. Bitzer and Dr. Slottow, co-inventors of the plasma panel display, were already inducted into the CE Hall of Fame in 2006.

Congrats Larry!

For more on the story, here's a link to the CEA's own blog post.

The September 2010 issue of Illinois Alumni magazine, the official publication of the University of Illinois Alumni Assocation, has an article about the history of PLATO entitled In The Time Of PLATO: How Students at Illinois Created Today's Computer Technology 50 Years Ago by Mary Timmins.

Mentioned in the article are Dan Alpert, Don Bitzer, Roger Johnson, Ray Ozzie, C.K. Gunsalus, Lippold Haken, and Paul Tenczar.

I've submitted a proposal to the SXSW 2011 Interactive Conference in Austin, TX. SXSW wrote back and said they loved the idea, but it seems like it's up to the world to vote for the session to make sure it gets added to the agenda.

The session is on NewsReport, which I argue is the world's first online newspaper (and perhaps blog). Certainly the earliest precursor to what we see commonplace today on the web, as far as I can tell. Should be a great session.

HOW YOU CAN HELP: You can help make this session come about by going to the link below and clicking on the thumbs up icon, indicating you're voting in favor of this session. Please vote, and spread the word via Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere! Thanks!

Please Vote

Today the New York Times ran two articles, plus a video, about efforts around the world to use robots as teaching machines, er, teachers. Somehow, this all rings a bell.

Be sure to watch the video, entitled "Robotic Teaching" in the first one:

What's your take on this? I'm deeply conflicted.


Learn more about the book:

The Friendly Orange Glow: The Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, by Brian Dear

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