The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture
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[Caption: A U.S. map drawn by the PLATO system]
Quick: Jump back in time to 1974. In a Harvard dormitory, Bill Gates, future co-founder of Microsoft, is goofing off playing poker and pinball. Over in India, Steve Jobs, future co-founder of Apple, has shaved his head and is wandering around seeking enlightenment. Out in Hawaii, Steve Case, future co-founder and head of AOL Time Warner, is busy writing album reviews for his Honolulu high school newspaper. While these future billionaire CEOs of Internet-industry behemoths are busy enjoying their last teenage years, at a university town in Illinois the 'Net has already arrived. Indeed: it's in full swing! Out here in the middle of cornfield country, there's a rich, vibrant online community of teachers, professors, hackers, slackers, pranksters, and software and hardware engineers thriving on email, chat rooms, instant messaging, addictive multiplayer games, multimedia, news, movie reviews, and message forums on everything from art, science, and literature, to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. How can this be?
[Caption: On PLATO, everyone knew you were a dog.]

Welcome to PLATO.

The PLATO system, started way back in 1960, was developed as a technological solution to delivering individualized instruction, in thousands of subjects from algebra to zoology, to students in schools and universities across the nation. As the system grew and evolved, it became, pretty much by accident, the first major online community, in the current sense of the term. In the early 1970s, people lucky enough to be exposed to the system discovered it offered a radically new way of understanding what computers could be used for: computers weren't just about number-crunching (and delivering individualized instruction), they were about people connecting with people. For many PLATO people who came across PLATO in the 1970s, this was a mind-blowing concept.

PLATO was created at the University of of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and beginning in the mid-70s was marketed commercially by Control Data Corporation (now long gone, the last remnants being a part of the current Syntegra Corp.). PLATO as a branded product continues to this day, in an evolved form available from Edmentum (formerly PLATO Learning, Inc.) (now the owners of the registered trademark, "PLATO"). Other offshoots CDC PLATO include CYBIS® from UOL Publishing, Inc., which has evolved into VCampus, Inc.. And of course, there's NovaNET, the successor to CERL's PLATO at the University of Illinois, and now marketed by Pearson Ed Tech. Interestingly, the great rivals PLATO (at least the CERL version that became NovaNET) and Computer Curriculum Corporation are finally under one roof -- Pearson's.

[Photo of: PLATO classroom, Willard Hall, Univ of Delaware]

This book is the story of the people that were a part of that online community -- the first real online "virtual community", pre-Web, pre-AOL, pre-USENET, pre-BBS, pre-everything.

A Brief Note on The Author's Own PLATO Experience
A number graph drawn by PLATO I sort of lived and breathed PLATO on a daily basis for five years, from 1979-1984. My experience with PLATO centered around three sites: the University of Delaware, CDC's Eastern Cybernet Center in Rockville, Maryland, and the University of Maryland. I had signons on "uofdel", "cerl", "alberta", "pwa", "pea", "pca", "pce", "fsu", "hawaii", "cdcbelg", and "umbc". After 1984 I worked on the TICCIT system and on multimedia CBT projects; I kept in touch with CERL with a "dialup" account, until CERL PLATO turned into NovaNET.

If you want to learn more about PLATO right this moment, the best way to start is to get an account on the Cyber1 system, which is a living, online snapshot of what PLATO was like, complete with the CERL course catalog, lots of the Control Data courseware, and of couse, most of the legendary PLATO games including Empire and Avatar. See for more details.