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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.

 

Learn more about the upcoming book:

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

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