PLATO (Programmed Logic forAutomated Teaching Operations) originated in the early 1960s as a distributed computer-based learning system at the University of Illinois and was the first generalized computer assisted instruction system. By the late 1970s, PLATO comprised of several thousand terminals worldwide. PLATO functioned for four decades and its list of innovations and seminal influences is considerable including online networking, gas-plasma flat-panel displays and interactive touch screens, as well as many software innovations. PLATO was a precursor to today's online world, with a thriving online community which predated today's social media by decades.

PLATO's History On Campus: A Tour of Important Sites and Displays

Visit PLATO displays on campus, view artifacts from early development, and explore the sites that were once the labs and offices where PLATO was developed and used.  Click here to view the PLATO tour map.

PLATO's Impact Today
PLATO was a pioneer system for online forums, message boards, email, chat rooms, instant messaging, blogging, multiplayer games, and even social networking. PLATO was the world's first online community. By 1985 the Control Data Corporation (CDC) had established PLATO systems in over 100 campuses around the world. But by the late 1980s, PLATO's mainframe-based system was losing popularity as microcomputers were becoming more popular. Today PLATO is not as widely used, but it remains important as a precursor to many of today's social networking and online communications innovations.

A Brief History of Social Media

  • PLATO Notes, 1972 - a precursor to online forums and message boards
    • Originally developed as two-way medium for system staff to communicate with users in three original discussion categories: System Announcements, Help Notes, and Public Notes. Public notes became the  most popular of the three forums where users discussed anything from books to politics. From 1978 to 1985 PLATO Notes acccounted for 30% of PLATO usage.
  • Talkomatic, 1973 - a precursor to chat rooms
    • Plato Notes forums were used to start group conversations
  • Term-talk, 1973 - a precursor to instant messaging
    • Term-talk could be used to start private conversations
  • Personal Notes, 1974- a precursor to email
    • Personal Notes was developed as a way for users to send private messages to other users even when the recipient was not online
  • News Report - A precursor to online news and blogging
    • Users could post news stories for other users to read
  • Multiplayer Games - an early exploration of social-based online gaming
    • Gaming accounted for 20% of PLATO usage from 1978-1985. Unpaid programmers wrote most of the games on PLATO. Airfight, a flight simulator, was the first highly interactive game on PLATO and became exceptionally popular, followed by Empire, a multiplayer game based on Star Trek. Gaming on PLATO was enhanced by the social interactions between users.

Above are two screenshots from PLATO programs.  On the left is a teaching program showing the anatomy of a human eye, on the right is the start screen for Avatar, a popular multiplayer game.

A Look at PLATO Through the Years:

Explore the stages of PLATO's development in this timeline, and the progression of features and capabilities that were added to PLATO over the decades.

A Collaborative Effort: Learn More About the People Behind the Technology

 Explore Related Technologies:

  • The Science Behind of PLATO - This page goes more in depth into the scientific theories and breakthroughs from UIUC and around the world that made PLATO possible in the first place
  • ILLIAC I - The first PLATO system operated on the ILLIAC I, part of the ILLIAC series of computers, which were all developed at UIUC.
  • TUTOR Programming Language - This allowed any user to be able to create new programs and lesson modules for PLATO, significantly transforming PLATO's capabilities and usage.
Can't get enough PLATO?  Check out the PLATO History blog!  Updated by Brian Dear, author of the upcoming book on PLATO, The Friendly Orange Glow.

Tell us your story! Did you ever use PLATO as a student at UIUC? Did PLATO impact your life in some other way? Share your experiences below.