PLATO: How an educational computer system from the ’60s shaped the future

Feature article on PLATO.

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.


Nice article!

A couple of source links:
X-20 The Plato IV Architecture May 72 (24 page PDF)
An Analysis of the Performance Benefits of Multihoming 30 slides, PDF

From the final paragraphs:

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.

Mentions of PLATO in earlier discussions include
1970 and other early or simple flight simulators
The 8-bit prehistory of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator
2022 CHM Fellow Awards

More photos here
History of the Chemistry Learning Center at the University of Illinois

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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.


There is also an entire book on PLATO: The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture by Brian Dear.

It’s in my vintage computing library, but still unread.


Both of those books (Rankin and Dear) have been on my books-of-interest list, but I haven’t as yet decided to buy. The problem being the same - books I own which I haven’t read!


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.

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