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Dave Liddle is a legend in Silicon Valley but what many don't know is he had an interesting role with Owens-Illinois in the late 60s, working on the plasma display, in cooperation with the PLATO plasma panel team at the University of Illinois.

Here's a recent oral history conducted at the Computer History Museum of Dave talking about his long illustrious career. The plasma project starts around the 17 minute mark, but the video below is set to around 15 minutes so you can get a little context of what led to his choice of going to Owens-Illinois. Better yet, start at the beginning of the interview and watch the whole 2.5 hour extravaganza!

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.)

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.

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

The Software Panel at the PLATO@50 conference featured Dr. Bob Rader, Dr. Bruce Sherwood, Mike Walker, and moderator Steve Gillmor. It's about 68 minutes long.

The Computer History Museum has uploaded another video from the PLATO@50 conference, late this afternoon -- the panel on Online Community. Featured are Charlene Li (Moderator), Dave Woolley, and Kim Mast, and Lili Cheng of Microsoft.


The Computer History Museum uploaded another high-definition video of a PLATO@50 panel session to YouTube today. This is the 1hr 9min video of the Online Education panel from June 3rd. It features an introduction by CHM CEO John Hollar, and a panel including Dr. Ruth Chabay, Dr. Sharon Dugdale, Bonnie Anderson Seiler, and Dr. Bruce Sherwood. The Moderator is Dr. Roy D. Pea:


The event's one PLATO history session, featuring Don Bitzer, Lippold Haken, and Peter Braunfeld, starts around then. The embedded video window below should activate around 8:45am Central Time on Thurs, April 15, 2010:

For more info on the conference please see

UPDATE 6/24/2010 --- I've updated the video to be the archived video since this is no longer streaming live obviously :-)

I have always found it notable and actually significant that the PLATO community first started with Notes, meaning, group communications or message forums, rather than Personal Notes, meaning email. Notes arrived in 1973, and Personal Notes came about in the first half of 1974.

Why is this significant? Well, let's take a look.

In 1973, the early PLATO IV system had no email system yet. But given that the system programmers at the Computer-based Education Research Lab (CERL) tended to work random hours -- some were daytimers, some were night owls --- and their offices were scattered around a five-storey building, the way they tended to communicate online to one another was via a series of TUTOR lessons, just plain source code files, called notes1 through notes19. They used the honor system: anyone could go in and edit the "notes file" but you were expected to be on your best behavior and not delete any existing text, or change anything. The idea was: append your comments, sign it with at least your initials, and get the heck out as soon as possible because nobody else could edit the file if you were in there. As you can imagine, this only worked for a while. On more than one occasion, some joker would go in and mess with the existing questions or answers, or delete the entire text.

Paul Tenczar, one of the senior system programmers, was finally exasperated enough at the situation and at the lack of a real system application for notes that he asked then 17-year-old Dave Woolley, who had only recently wandered over to CERL with classmate Kim Mast, both of them Uni High students, to work in the summer on creating a real system application that had authentication and enabled users to post notes, reply to other notes, and finally solve this problem.

On August 7th, 1973, lesson =notes= was released on PLATO. Initially it supported three "categories": notes regarding new system feature announcements, general notes for the public, and "help" notes, or requests for help.

It was an immediate hit.

What is interesting to me is that PLATO's email feature, Personal Notes, written by Kim Mast, didn't come out for a while yet. And this is where things get interesting vis-a-vis the Internet and the Web. On PLATO, users became acquainted with the benefits of group communication and collaboration -- emphasis on group -- far earlier than they did on the Net. Think about it: ARPANET started with email as early as 1971 (although there were various primitive earlier instances of it on various systems going back into the 60s). Yes, there were experimental message forums on ARPANET from circa 1971, but they were relatively isolated and not "mainstream", that is, everyone didn't use them. On PLATO, pretty much all author-level users were exposed to and participated in the Notes capability, and it became the de-facto method for communicating and sharing ideas with colleagues, among many other uses.

On ARPANET, later Internet, and I would argue even still on the web today --- especially in workplaces --- think about your own situation: do you work at a company with more than 25 people? Do you live in email all day? Does that not describe life in most companies? --- email is the predominant communications tool, not group notesfiles or message forums. Some teams here and there use message boards, some use wikis, but almost everybody uses email as the de-facto standard for group communication, despite how messy and cluttery email is for such purposes. Remember how the media used to talk about the Information Age was one where companies were filled with "knowledge workers"? More like companies have become filled with people dealing with way too much email.

Think about the typical work-related email thread: somebody sends out a note and cc's a bunch of people, and you're on the cc list. Then some of the recipients post replies, replying to all. Then more. And then even more. And usually, everyone "quotes" the previous messages as appended text, so the actual message length keeps growing, even if all you post in your reply is "i agree" or "i disagree". Every single time someone sends out an email reply to all the recipients, they all individually get a new unread message in their inboxes. During the course of a single day, a busy company can cause dozens if not hundreds of new, unread emails, many of which with "Re:" or worse, "Re: Re:" or "Re: Re: Re:" threads in them. It's a productivity nightmare, and yet, this is still the way things pretty much are for most workplaces.

PLATO users lucked out and saw the benefits of using Notes for group communication and collaboration right from the start. In fact, there was no "cc" or "bcc" option in Personal Notes -- it was for you to send a single message to a single recipient, period. Later the capability to forward a personal note to another user was added, but there was no cc list that I can recall (it may have been added years later on NovaNET but then I'm not even sure about that). So PLATO users naturally gravitated to using the group-oriented Notes application (which by 1976 had expanded to support the ability for anyone to create their own "notesfile" and control who could have access to it, making it ideal for private collaboration and discussion among a select group or team).

It is unfortunate that the Internet/Web did not evolve similarly, with a clear delineation between email and group messaging -- or a better architecture right from the get-go that merged email and group messaging. Ray Ozzie and the team at Iris Associates built the wildly successful Lotus Notes, which attempted to take the learnings from PLATO Notes to the networked personal computer arena, but despite its success, in the end it was a proprietary system that only thousands of businesses adopted -- not millions. (Sure, Lotus Notes, now part of IBM, can claim over 100 million end-users, but the Internet has well over 1 billion, soon no doubt to be 2 billion if we're not there already, "end-users". So Lotus/IBM have not changed the way most people communicate.) Today, the default is email, not a group collaboration system. Lots of companies over the years have tried to offer products that change this -- most notably Google's recent Gmail and Wave services, which enable you to think of group communications more as conversations, and conversations are considered atomic items, rather than simple individual messages -- but despite even their success, we are still stuck without a PLATO-style Notes solution that is the defacto standard for the Internet. This is unfortunate and I wish it could change, but I don't see it changing until Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, and the dozen or so other players who, together, have the majority of worldwide population using their communication tools, to agree on a new standard. And that ain't likely.


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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