eLearning / Computer Based Training, PLATO

In 1960, Prof. Donald Bitzer introduced an educational computer system, the Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations, PLATO.

In hindsight, PLATO is arguably one of the least known but most important technological advances ever. Countless elements of the world wide web were first introduced via PLATO.


Bitzer was a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana. His inspiration to create PLATO was about half of US high school graduates, in the 1940s, were functionally illiterate. Bitzer theorized that a computer would have the patience that some human teachers lacked, especially for challenging students.

PLATO was an early timesharing system, a new concept at the time. Users and programmers shared the computer using terminals, not punch cards. Programs were interactive, where users would do something, and the computer would respond immediately. In contrast, most computers at the time ran a program, read data for the program, then printed results.

As the system developed and Bitzer found faster computers, PLATO eventually supported up to 1,000 simultaneous users. PLATO featured an early modem, enabling geographic diversity. Terminals were small plasma panels, a new invention, and supported touch, also a new invention. TUTOR, the programming language, was reasonably approachable. Children could and did learn to program the system.

Today’s Computers, Yesterday

PLATO invented the notion of online community, enabling people to send text messages to one another. These messages could be read in real-time or later. Messages could be sent to a virtual “room” of users or to an individual user, a precursor of today’s short message text service. Asynchronous notes, called PLATO notes, also worked. PLATO notes evolved into Lotus Notes.

PLATO featured the first massive multi-player online game (MMOG), Empire. It was massively popular. However, many users couldn’t play Empire because PLATO also featured the first parental control system, The Enforcer. It ensured users were learning or programming, not gaming. For incorrigibles who snuck into games not listed in The Enforcer, senior users (oh, yeah, PLATO also was the first system with interchangeable roles) could zap into the first screen-sharing program.

Maybe the WWW would evolve but for PLATO, and easy interfaces, touch-screens, variable roles, online community, group chat, forums, SMS, and who knows what else. That’d be conjecture. What we do know, with certainty, is PLATO was first with all these features that make up the modern world. It also featured some teaching programs, the original purpose.


PLATO was soley a teaching computer. Inventing the modern computer world, in hindsight, was an accident. In this spirit, Bitzer and colleagues created a special lab, the Computer-Based Education Research Laboratory (CERL), at UI Champaign-Urbana.

Web Search Engine

Noteworthy early search engines include Archie, from 1990, that searched filenames, and Gopher, from 1991, that organized files.

Early Search Engines

In March 1994, Stanford students David Filo and Jerry Yang created “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.” Their website contained lists arranged by category of the burgeoning
World Wide Web. Sites were added by hand, with short snippets written by site creators. Initially, there was no charge to list a site. In January 1995 they renamed their website Yahoo.

In December 1995, to showcase the power of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) hardware, engineers designed a computer program to read and search (index) the entire World Wide Web. Originally meant as a hardware demo their website, Alta Vista, became popular. Alta Vista was the earliest full-text search engine.

Alta Vista merely matched words a user searched for and verbiage on websites. It was extremely primitive technology that did prioritize the significance or quality of websites. Yahoo was hand curated so did a better job, but the curation process did not scale well and, eventually, they started charging a fee for inclusion. Neither site did an especially good job searching. A third search engine, Excite, founded in 1994 rounded out the top search engines of the era. There were other smaller but still popular web search engines including Lycos (1994), Ask Jeeves (1996), and LookSmart (1995).


In 1996 Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin worked on a computer program to determine context. They decided to read the entire web, the same way that Alta Vista did, except to rank the importance of websites. Initially, their primary criteria for importance was the number of links from other websites and the rank of those sites. This metric, called “Page Rank” (a pun on Larry Page’s last name and the utility of the technology), yielded vastly better search results than either Yahoo or Alta Vista. In late August 1996, Larry Page noted Google downloaded and indexed 207GB of content storing it in a 28GB database.

In September 1997 Page and Brin moved towards commercializing their search engine, registering the domain name google.com, a play on the word googol (a one with a hundred zeros after it).

Wish to return to their academic lives Page and Brin tried to sell their young company. They offered it to the owners of Alta Vista and Excite for $1 million. Both passed. They lowered the offer to Excite to $750,000. The company still passed. Page and Brin were all but forced to build out their budding search engine, eventually selling plain-text ads based on the search request.

In March 2005 IAC/InterActiveCorp purchased Excite, which still had significant traffic, for $1.9 billion. As of 2019 Excite has no significant search traffic. Excite was shuttered August 2013. Google parent Alphabet is worth just over $800 billion. Other search engines exist, most notably Microsoft’s Bing, but none have nearly the same number of users as Google.

Personal Computer, Xerox Alto (the “interim Dynabook”)

Dynabook was at the heart of Xerox PARC. Eventually realized as the Xerox Alto, it is essentially the first personal computer. Easy-to-use with a graphical interface, what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSISYG) programs, icons, the mouse, networking. Everything we take for granted today started as the Dynabook/Alto.


The Dynabook dates to Kay’s doctoral thesis and the first interview with Xerox. It is the underlying principle behind much of the work at Xerox PARC.

Kay envisioned a computer for just one person. His theoretical computer notebook would cost less than $500 “so that we could give it away in schools.” Compactness was important so “a kid could take it wherever he goes to hide.” Programming should be easy: “Simple things should be simple, complex things should be possible.” “A combination of this ‘carry anywhere’ device and a global information utility such as the ARPA network or two-way cable TV will bring the libraries and schools (not to mention stores and billboards) to the home.”

Xerox refused to fund the Dynabook, it was an inappropriate project since Xerox PARC was for offices, not children. Subsequently, Kay ignored them, sneaked away and, with the help of Thacker and Lampson, built what became the Alto. Kay referred to the Alto as “the interim Dynabook.”

Xerox: Computers Won’t Make Money

When finished, in 1973, Kay released it with a graphic of Cookie Monster, from Sesame Street, holding the letter C. Xerox built about 2,000 Alto’s for company use but never fully commercialized the computer. A Xerox executive told Taylor “the computer will never be as important to society as the copier.” The Dynabook, the personal computer, did not add shareholder value.

As of mid-2019, Xerox is worth $6.5 billion. Microsoft is worth $1.01 trillion. Apple is worth $874 billion.

Of course, Steve Jobs eventually visited Xerox PARC and rolled many ideas of the Alto into an Apple computer first called the Lisa and, later, the Macintosh. Soon after, Microsoft released Windows that looks suspiciously similar.