PLATO Culture - CERL and Computer Culture

PLATO and Empire Culture

PLATO had an established culture of openness and supporting creativity and interaction. New communication features improved how we interacted remotely.

For example, I programmed Empire by myself, mostly learning TUTOR from the well-written AIDS (HELP) system. Silas Warner at Indiana University helped me get the lesson space. He also gave detailed feedback, all without seeing each other. We spoke once on the phone. PLATO had a lesson called -pad- which let one type on a line. What you typed was immediately shared with others. Once the screen filled to the bottom, it wrapped around. This was our primary mode of communication. There was no email or other interactive tool. However, PLATO soon provided TERM-talk, an option which let you page others, if you knew their logon, then on the bottom of the screen interactively type to each other. Two lines, one for each person's messages. Every letter as it was typed, including backspaces.

Now today that may not seem at all remarkable, since we use the tools of the Internet to interact; remember, I was still having to use punched cards and tape for my Computer Science class work (though I quickly moved all of my projects to PLATO). This communication is how I later met my wife in early 1977.

I feel this safeness of remote communication helped those of us more shy people find others we could talk with.

Travel to Chambana

"CERL", the Computer Education Research Laboratory in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, beckoned. I rode a couple bus lines from Ames, Iowa, to Champaign in October, 1973. Here, I hoped to meet the creators of the system or at least the operators. CERL hired students as Junior System Programmers. PLATO PATROL business card Business card for the PLATO PATROL (Junior Programmers of group "p"), October 1973.


My first trip to Chambana or PLATO mecca was the weekend of October 18th, 1973. There I met Silas Warner in person, having interacted with him online early on for lesson space and as play tester. Now, I was almost six foot three inches tall and felt dwarfed by Silas. When he first entered the doorway to the commons area it caught my eye because the light diminished. Silas wore a nice brown suit with open collar; I felt a bit underdressed. He seemed to have kept multiple paperback books in his pockets, since when we were online and if he were waiting for PLATO to do something, he'd pull a book out and read.

One pet-peeve Silas loudly expressed was the little knobbies (bumps) on the "F" and "J" keys. At whatever terminal he would get, if those bumps were there, he would pull out his pocket knife and shear them off smooth.

PLATO IV terminals PLATO IV terminals in CERL Room 203B, October 1973.

The plasma display was designed by Don Bitzer in the 1960s specifically for the PLATO project. Since the plasma glowed orange, the monochrome coloring was Orange on Black.

terminal controller PLATO terminal controller in CERL Room 203B.

A terminal controller consolidated communications between a group of terminals and the central host system. It maintained the 1200 baud speed whether the terminal was locally wired or connected at a distance over a wired phone circuit.

Breaking and Entering

I had been working many (MANY) long hours late at night, often starting right after classes or dinner and lasting until PLATO shut down each morning for Preventative Maintenance (PM). PLATO was scheduled to shut down at ten-o'clock (10:00PM Central) each night to allow the systems programmers to run test systems. It usually returned by about 10:30. This gave a half hour to run out to get sustenance for the night.

One problem we had was the building was locked in the evening and if we did not get back from a snack attack or other activity we were locked out; that is, until I was shown how to use a small screwdriver to slide back the locking mechanism on a particular door underneath the main steps to the building.

At some point the Dean became aware of this activity and my PLATO programming. I was summoned to his office and since this was my first summons, I was concerned I was in some big trouble. He had me sit, looking a bit stern. "Do you know why I asked you here?"

"No." I said.

"You've been breaking into the building and I am afraid that I may have to replace the lock. You seem to be wearing it out."

Then he handed me a key and the letter, then smiled a big grin.

Thankfully, he took the tack of supporting creativity.

February 5, 1973--This is a letter of authorization for John Daleske giving him permission to work in Room 206B, the PLATO Terminal, after the 11:00 p.m. closing hour for as long as necessary and whenever necessary.
-- Trevor G. Howe, Professor of Education, Dean of the College of Education, Iowa State University.

The date of 1973 on this letter confused my research in that it was inconsistent with the other data I had. If this date was true, then Empire would have been written Spring of 1972; I don't have a recollection of that fitting. In addition, the Education 204 course I was taking is on my Spring 1973 transcript. I am convinced the department secretary must have mis-typed the year, since it was early in the year.