The PLATO System - Development of The Proto-Internet

PLATO -- The First Online Social Network

In 1960 at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, the PLATO computer system started as a project to make a system for computer-based education. It became a whole lot more.

Say what? Email, notes, interactive networked computer games, Instant Messaging, and more all existed BEFORE the Internet and didn't start at an Ivy-league University?

Huh? There was an online social networking system BEFORE MySpace, FaceBook or others!?

What? There was an online networking system BEFORE the Internet and Al Gore got online!?

Yes to all of the above, with qualification. History can prove fickle and forgetful. With the rapid, exponential growth of computing from Babbage to Atanasoff to Cray, with the rapid growth of online interactive networking, history is already getting a bit fuzzy. Sometimes that fuzziness purposely happens when marketing groups for large corporations develop a spin.

As an example: Did individuals own and use personal computers BEFORE the term was coined (co-opted) by IBM? You bet!

PLATO provided many contributions to computing, probably most important by the many people who grew up and learned programming and human factors that would be needed for development of computing platforms useful in some many areas, including the Internet.

For example, Ray Ozzie, well known for Lotus Notes started on PLATO. In 2006, Ray took over as Chief Software Architect at Microsoft from Bill Gates. See the December 2008 WIRED magazine.

This site centers around my experiences in developing the first multi-player, multi-terminal, networked computer game, EMPIRE and, what I consider at least as important, the first interactive, online virtual story, Guanogap.

Mike Capek

Let's start by a discussion of PLATO as an Excellent Game Platform.

The PLATO System and Current Emulation - Cyber1

The full-screen (512x512) images used here are done by using the PLATO Terminal simulator by Paul Koning, found on the Cyber1 System. Thanks to Paul and the others who have ported pterm to most systems and to the dedicated team at Cyber1 for their remarkable efforts.

To get a sense of what the Cyber1 team accomplished, think about what they have done. The PLATO system ran on a Control Data Cyber mainframe. The CDC machines used their own operating system, NOS. Control Data has been out of business for some time. Those huge machines are no longer made and they eat a lot of power.

The base of the Cyber1 is a microcomputer (a powerful server), but it's machine language is totally different from a Cyber. A SIMULATION of the CDC Cyber hardware was developed, which runs on top of Linux (or Mac OS or UNIX); that simulates the hardware. Then on top of that, they have installed a version NOS, the CDC Cyber operating system. Then, installed on top of that is the PLATO system.

But wait! ... There's more...

The Input/Output (I/O) for the CDC Cyber was special hardware that eventually divided the messages to the various terminals down; this was all emulated in software. And, the protocol was encapsulated to run over TCP/IP, which has somewhat different characteristics.

And, on top of all that, one needs an emulator for the PLATO terminal itself, pterm.

You can see the whole thing working, with many people using it at the same time by going to the Cyber1 System.


Many people provided suggestions, comments, and other input for this overview including:

Timeline and history of the development of online virtual stories and games on PLATO, the "Proto-Internet", written in 2008 by John Daleske. Revised in 2016 for responsive support of platforms from smart phones, tablets, to large displays.