When Brian Dear walked through the doors of the University of Delaware in the fall of 1979, his intention was to follow his father and a long line of family members into the newspaper business.
Then he met PLATO, or rather one of the hundreds of large, boxy terminals that made up the early computer network PLATO that dotted the campus. This crossing of literal and electronic paths led Dear into a high-tech career as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, none of which existed yet, and eventually became The Friendly Orange Glow (Pantheon Books, 2017), which is subtitled, The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture.
“When I saw PLATO, I realized right away that was the future,” Dear, now a resident of Santa Fe, said recently. “How would society not embrace this?”
What Dear had discovered was called Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations by the people who ran it. Dear and the hundreds of young men and women who had come to love it since its birth in 1960 at the University of Illinois called it a miracle.
Long before Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were out of elementary school and seemingly eons before now-commonplace terms like email, Facebook and online gaming, there was PLATO, a system designed to replicate and, eventually, supplant classroom teachers and revolutionize education throughout the world.
However, what was important wasn’t what PLATO taught anyone else, but what users taught PLATO.
“That why I wrote it,” Dear said of his fascinating 610-plus page history of a pivotal, nearly forgotten computer system and the tech culture it inspired. “It’s because no one has ever heard of this. My eternal frustration has been that this was a major part of 20th-century history, and there hasn’t been a TV show, a book, a movie or anything. It’s been overlooked. It set the path to everything we do today.”
This is not hyperbole.
By 1973, PLATO had gone through several iterations and, in a 12-month span, its users at the University of Illinois — nearly all of them in their late teens and early 20s — wrote code for the first multi-user chat rooms, created instant messaging (sorry, kids, your father’s father did it first), online bulletin boards, email, screen sharing, live chat, screen savers and the first-ever multi-user games.
Not to be outdone by anything to come, PLATO even gave birth to the world’s first online newspaper — in 1974.
“It kind of messes with the whole mythology of Silicon Valley,” Dear said. “This all happened in the cornfields of Illinois.”
What happened in those fields was a precursor to our time.
“PLATO was a microcosm of everything we have today — good, bad and ugly,” Dear said. “It’s the interpersonal computer revolution as opposed to, and before, the personal computer revolution ever started. This group of kids descended on the PLATO system. They transformed it from being strictly about education. They enabled people to … pretty much yak [online].”
PLATO systems physically were huge — and hugely expensive — mainframe computers feeding the results of computations back to terminals like the large, kludgy box Dear became infatuated with.
The result of early government investment in defense and educational technologies, PLATO started out as a huge assortment of vacuum tubes, then slimmed up with the then-new semiconductors flowing into the scene.
However, PLATO was not so much the beneficiary of new technologies. Instead, it was more like a genesis-machine spawning critical ideas.
Because of the prohibitive cost of Random Access Memory (especially video memory), PLATO’s developers had to find a way to create responsive screens that worked on a wide scale off a single mainframe. RAM, which is a cheap commodity nowadays, was $200 per byte then. Putting it in perspective: The new iPhone X contains three gigabytes of memory and would cost millions of dollars at the same price.
This led to the invention of the plasma tube, which did not require so much costly memory. Upon startup, it emitted the friendly orange glow of the title.
They were also the first touch screens ever used in computing.
There was so much more. While PLATO was meant for teaching, its top users found a creative and much more enjoyable use for it — gaming. The first games were basic space blast ‘em ups but quickly grew more complicated and demanding of the hardware. Nobody seemed to mind, though.
“What better way to make bulletproof the system?” Dear said. “It was almost like a daily simulation of the worst case on their servers.”
As the young enthusiasts graduated and moved on to personal computers, they created software hits like Microsoft Flight Simulator, Castle Wolfenstein, as well as business programs like Lotus Notes. Eventually, PLATO was left behind in the wave of cheaper and smaller computers to come. PLATO signed off while just a few users watched.
Dear, who also met his wife via an online chat in PLATO, spent 32 years (between career moves) and 7 million words writing The Friendly Orange Glow.
He did much of the work on the book in La Jolla, Calif. He attempted one last startup before working on the book full time. He finished writing and edits in Santa Fe, where he has spent the past 2½ years.
“I was nearing completion with the book,” Dear said. “I finished it out here. Santa Fe is a great place to finish a book.”
The Friendly Orange Glow has been a mission dedicated to making sure the superfast 21st century does not forget the pure joy of PLATO.
“PLATO is premoney,” Dear said. “That kind of motivation was not present on PLATO. What drew [us] was the thrill of being online and that everything was so new and futuristic. And there was the opportunity to become famous inside the system.”
Dear earned a bit of his own fame in the wider world this year. Publishing his book put him on a book tour, which is a rare thing for most writers these days. The tour took him coast to coast and included the University of Illinois, the birthplace of PLATO. There, an English teacher from high school showed up for a signed book.
“He said sign it to all the students of the school,” Dear said with a smile. “He donated it to the library.”
Jeff Norris is a Santa Fe-based freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org