A recent post on Peter O’Kelly’s blog took me to a web site entitled, “PLATO History: Remembering the Future,” which focuses on the history of PLATO, a computer system originally developed at the University of Illinois. As a blurb for the PLATO @ 50 Conference states, “Come find out what social software, e-learning, online community, and multiplayer games were like long before the Internet took off.”
Yes, PLATO was an amazing system for its time. Ray Ozzie got some of his initial ideas for Lotus Notes from PLATO; he used PLATO when he was a student at the U of I in the mid-1970′s.
I also used PLATO, although for a grand total of an hour. My father was a professor at the U of I, and when I was in high school I got word of a psychology study being conducted on PLATO. All you had to do was turn up for half an hour, two times a week apart, and you were paid $5 each time! (a total of $40 in today’s money). Me and my friends knew a good deal when we heard it, so a whole gaggle of us traipsed over to the computer lab.
It was an experiment trying to understand the difference between short term and long term memory. We were sat down in front of the PLATO terminal, which displayed a series of words (probably 20), and then asked to recall them in order. When we turned up a week later, we were asked once again to recall them. It was probably the first time I’d ever seen a real live computer terminal in person. Before the test, the grad student bragged about how you could do this and that on PLATO and gave a quick demo of its capabilities.
Although Carnegie-Mellon, Stanford, and the University of Waterloo are typically cited as the computing school superpowers, the U of I is no slouch. It created one of the first supercomputers (Illiac IV) and was the home of the Mosaic browser (developed at NCSA at the U of I).
So check out what PLATO could do back in the 1970′s: plasma displays, time sharing, instant messaging, e-mail, e-Learning, and remote screen sharing. In some ways, we’re still trying to perfect the technologies that systems such as Dynabook and PLATO created.