The Friendly Orange Glow : The Untold Story of the PLATO system and the dawn of cyberculture (2017) by Brian Dear is a fascinating but wildly too long account of the PLATO interactive, networked computer system developed at the University of Illinois.
PLATO was clearly an incredibly advanced system that had high speed interactive graphics and networking. It was started as a system that was intended to greatly enhance teaching by providing individually paced lessons for students. PLATO got many people to use the system in highly surprising that included early networked games, bulletin boards and networked chat. PLATO also had a plasma screen and critical research on plasma and flat panel displays was done for it.
The system was commercialised by CDC but largely failed to gain traction. PLATO also almost became the basis for the system at Xerox PARC. The system is also interesting because it was an important, revolutionary system that wasn’t developed in the US Northeast or on the Pacific.
Dear himself first used the system in 1979 and went on to have a great career founding several companies and working at a number of significant technology firms.
It’s an incredible bit of largely unknown history. The book could have been fantastic but due to the author’s desire to get too much in and the lack of an editor who didn’t weed the book down it’s a real slog. It is a great resource for historians though.
There is an excellent interview with the author on the also excellent ‘Internet History Podcast’. If you’re at all interested in the topic that would be a great place to start. This is also where I found the book.
PLATO was started in the 1960s and initially used the ILLIAC as the mainframe behind before migrating onto more powerful machines. It was led by Daniel Alpert, a physicist who made the inspired decision of hiring Don Bitzer, another physicist to be the technical lead. Bitzer made the team very informal and allowed anyone who could show they could contribute to contribute remarkably including high school students as well.
By the 1970s the system could support thousands of users and the labs at the university were fairly open and games and other social things were created that were hugely successful. Remarkably Bitzer allowed this use and cleverly used it to stress test and improve the machine. It had much of what is now on the internet 25 years before it was widely used in other places and 10-15 years before Unix based systems caught up.
Dear has a huge section on all the contributors and game programmers that he could track down. He also includes biographies for many of them. It’s quite amazing, but also pretty tiring.
The book is fascinating for people interested in the history of technology and it’s surprising for anyone who is familiar with what is usually presented as the main history of technology from mainframes to Unix to PCs. The PLATO system has clearly been dramatically overlooked and this book does a lot to correct that. It is, however, also far too long. One way to deal with it is to really speed read through any sections that the reader doesn’t find interesting. But if a third to a half of the book had been cut it would have been much better. Still, Dear deserves enormous credit for compiling and writing the book.