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The friendly orange glow : the untold story of the PLATO system and the dawn of cyberculture
Dear B., Pantheon Books, New York, NY, 2017. 640 pp.  Type: Book (978-1-101871-55-3)
Date Reviewed: Jul 25 2018

The back cover notes: “a group of visionary engineers and designers ... in the late 1960s and 1970s created a computer system called PLATO, which was light years ahead in experimenting with how people would learn, engage, communicate, and play through connected computers.” So what exactly was PLATO? Fundamentally, it was a multiuser self-paced learning system, developed at the University of Illinois and subsequently marketed by Control Data Corporation (CDC).

In the early chapters of the book, readers learn of psychologist Burrhus Skinner, who felt that students could learn more quickly if they were allowed to proceed at their own pace with immediate feedback as they went. He therefore developed a cardboard disk-based machine that would expose a question through a window and then provide an opportunity for entry of an answer using a set of sliding levers. One of Skinner’s contemporaries was Norman Crowder, who cowrote a “choose your own adventure” type of book [1] where algebra students selected an answer to a question on their current page and were directed accordingly to another page.

Donald Bitzer, at the University of Illinois, picked up these concepts. He was charged with developing the first PLATO system on an Illinois automatic computer (ILLIAC). Version I of the system used a 16-key input device with a TV display able to show slides selected from an attached disk-shaped platter. Part 1’s chapters trace the development of this, from its beginnings to the 1972 formal release of Version IV, which was hosted on a CDC 6400 supercomputer able to accommodate 4096 local and remote users simultaneously. Coding was accomplished using TUTOR, a Fortran-like language, and each terminal used a touch-sensitive orange-on-black plasma screen with a full keyboard on the desk.

The book includes some examples of PLATO lessons. There’s a “race-the-train” game, West, in which students pit their mathematics skills against each other or against the machine. And there’s an elementary reading game in which sentences can be constructed using sets of words displayed on the screen. A suite of lessons developed for inmates were deployed at Illinois prisons under the PLATO Corrections Project. PLATO terminals used at a state-run residential facility for children also produced some significant outcomes.

Part 2 discusses some PLATO applications. One of these, a chat program called Talkomatic, enabled users to communicate interactively with users connected to the same host or connected to a different host at another location. And, of course, there was a dungeon game called Moria. Some users employed the chat facilities in a similar manner to what we might now regard as primitive online dating.

In the final part of the book, readers learn how CDC saw a business opportunity in 1972, based on Donald Bitzer’s prediction that by 1985 there would be a million-terminal network consisting of 250 central processing systems tied together and able to load shift between themselves when necessary. The company developed a cheaper black-and-white CRT terminal to replace the plasma-based terminal, and hired staff for lesson development. The end result was marketed and sold to organizations as far afield as Russia, South Africa, and Australia. It found application in some surprising areas, for example, Boeing pilot training, New York blackout response simulations, and stockbroker certification at the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD). In the early 1980s, it gradually became apparent that personal computers like the Atari 800 and Apple II could be used as platforms for PLATO. An official release for these (on cartridge or diskette) was made in 1982, and an IBM personal computer (PC) version was released in 1985.

This is not an easy book to read. There are lengthy paragraphs about the education and social lives of many of those who worked on PLATO, and much is made of the activities of unpaid testers and developers (who we might now call “nerds”). But for those interested in what existed before the World Wide Web (WWW), it is a worthwhile read. And there is a magnificent set of full-color photographs in the center of the book, including early (orange) plasma screens, PLATO IV terminals, and application screen shots.

CDC demonstrated PLATO in my own city when I had some involvement with the company’s service bureau operations, and I now deeply regret not having found the time to attend those demonstrations.

More reviews about this item: Amazon, Kirkus Reviews, Goodreads, B&N

Reviewer:  G. K. Jenkins Review #: CR146170 (1810-0535)
1) Crowder, N. A.; Martin, G. C. Adventures in algebra. Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1960.
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