Bright graphics, a touchscreen, a speech synthesizer, messaging apps, games, and educational software—no, it’s not your kid’s iPad. This is the mid-1970s, and you’re using PLATO.
Far from its comparatively primitive contemporaries of teletypes and punch cards, PLATO was something else entirely. If you were fortunate enough to be near the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) around a half-century ago, you just might have gotten a chance to build the future. Many of the computing innovations we treat as commonplace started with this system, and even today, some of PLATO’s capabilities have never been precisely duplicated. Today, we’ll look back on this influential technological testbed and see how you can experience it now.
And if you want a more modern retrocomputing take, IRATA.ONLINE is a PLATO-based system with new content focused on old machines, starting originally with clients for Atari 8-bits (including, with interfacing, Atari’s old 1984 cartridge, but also FujiNet) and now Apple II and IIGS, Commodore 64 and 128 (VDC supported for full resolution), IBM 5150 PC and PCjr, ZX Spectrum (serial or Spectranet), Atari ST, Amiga, TI 99/4A, and many more. It also works with PTerm, and source code is available.
PLATO’s contributions to computer-aided education can’t be overemphasized, but the advances to make those contributions possible led to critical innovations in many other technical fields as well, such as graphic displays, networking, and user interfaces. In addition, the creativity of its users and its early freewheeling environment combined to yield groundbreaking academic content, highly influential games, and pioneering social and messaging tools that were the conceptual forerunners of the applications we use now and set in motion the cultural underpinnings of our ubiquitously networked modern world.
The book A People’s History of Computing in the United States by Joy Lisi Rankin has a fair amount of history on the PLATO project, including the hardware and services as well as a sense of the community that grew up around those services.
My overall opinion of the Rankin book is not as high as my opinion of many other books, although it has a lot of great information. For several of the topics it covers, I think that Broad Band by Claire L. Evans does a better and more human job of putting it together. The overlap between those books is not at all complete, though, so there’s still material of interest in A People’s History. I don’t remember PLATO having as much time in Broad Band, for example.