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.