The History of Computer Gaming Part 5 - PLATO Ain't Just Greek - by Marty "Retro Rogue" Goldberg
Computers That Teach
Welcome to part five in a multi-part series
meant to entertain and astonish you with the history of gaming
on computers. Yes kid, there was a time when games didn't
require the latest 3D accelerator cards and teams of
designers. All it took was access to a computer, a little
knowledge, and a little "hacker" spirit to get going and do it
So everyone fasten your seat belt while Sherman sets the Wayback Machine for 1958 when University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign began it's CERL lab, and set the tone for the future.....
Back in the early 60's while the MIT hackers were busy working on thing like Spacewar and helping in the development of timesharing systems, there were others hard at work in similar endeavors as well.
At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), work was being done on creating a mainframe based timesharing system of a different sort. The idea was to support Professor Don Bitzer's research in a relatively new field called Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI).
In 1960 it became apparent to me and others that the school systems, in the larger inner-city schools, were turning out students that were likely to be functionally illiterate in our society. And I was very interested in knowing if it was possible for using our new upcoming computer technology for helping solve this problem.
support this end, the Computer Education Research Laboratory
(CERL) was founded in 1958 to provide a location for the
research to proceed. By April of 1961, the patent for the
first system was filed and entitled "Automated Teaching
Machine (PLATO)". Conceived by physics professor Charles
Sherwin, it was proposed as a multi-user teaching and
Initially starting as a single user system under the supervision of Don Bitzer, by late '61 expansion to a timesharing system (PLATO II) was begun. The resulting Iliac system had about as much power as today's digital watches, but was more than adequate for the job.
As the PLATO project began to take on a life, it became a hotbed for academic research on using computers for educational instruction. Programs and environments were being developed to explore various possibilities for training professionals of many different occupations. With papers such as "Self-directed Inquiry in Clinical Nursing Instruction by Means of the PLATO Computer-Controlled Simulated Laboratory."
To write the software, he collected a staff of creative eccentrics ranging from university professors to high school students, few of whom had any computer background. Together they built a system that was at least a decade ahead of its time in many ways.
More than 300 programs were authored
between 1961 and 1967, spanning from foreign language
acquisition, math, science, and music to engineering and
nursing for elementary, secondary, higher education, and
workplace education (
We actually figured out how to make these screens in about 15 minutes while waiting for our wives to come pick us up. The memory was in the (plasma display) panel itself. And therefore, you could just send changes to the panel over a much lower bandwidth, and support the image remotely.
plasma display panel they came up with used a neon gas base.
1,024 fine electric wires were set together in a 512 x 512
array. When an electrical signal is sent to one of these
intersections, it heats the neon gas, which glows orange,
forming a dot (pixel) on the black screen. The dots are then
used to form the images (letters and designs for example) on
the screen. This method had the advantage of increasing the
contrast and overall brightness of the item being displayed (a
lower case letter of 8 dots high and 3 to 8 dots wide -
character only one-eighth of an inch high - was legible from
as far as six feet away).
With the Internet, you can get the access costs down fairly low. But the problem is that the random delay times and response makes it not very interactive.
By the early 1970's) the PLATO IV terminal would incorporate touch sensitive screens that would allow you to interact with the onscreen data in a manner similar to a mouse - literally allowing you to drag and move objects on screen. However, it was the network of terminals centered around one centralized computer that provided the development of some of PLATO's more lasting legacies.