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The Greatest Computer Network You’ve Never Heard Of

 

How the PLATO system, a pre-internet online platform that first came to life at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the 1960s, quietly fostered some of the first digital natives.

Nearly 60 years ago, in the modest college towns of Urbana and Champaign, Illinois, an educational computer system, built with federal funding acquired amid the space race, took its first formative steps toward existence.

It took more than a decade, and four iterations, for the mainframe machine and its many terminals to reach their full potential—everything had to be be built from scratch.

And when these educational terminals finally became good enough for regular use, the thousands of connected high school and college students immediately used them to program numerous chat apps and games.

Such is the life of the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), the first computer-assisted learning system in wide use. The technology—which by its fourth iteration, released in 1972, had become a networked computing platform that relied on a mixture of mainframes, terminals, phone lines, and custom programming tools—clearly inspired what came next.

Some of the most popular pieces of software ever made, including Lotus Notes and Microsoft Flight Simulator, share a direct lineage with the applications produced by students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and other nearby universities more than 40 years ago. Many more, such as Reddit, Twitter, and AOL, carry clear inspiration, whether their creators know it or not. And this platform generated some of the earliest examples of digital culture, including emoticons and interactive storytelling.

Brian Dear, a onetime PLATO user at the University of Delaware, has spent roughly two decades gathering up every scrap of information available about the system for his new book, The Friendly Orange Glow (Pantheon, $40), released this week.

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