Self Help

A People's History of Computing in the Uni - Joy Lisi Rankin

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Matheus Puppe

· 65 min read

Here is a summary of Joy Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States:

  • Rankin challenges the popular “Silicon Valley mythology” that portrays the history of computing as driven by a few tech geniuses, mainly in California. She shows that computing was shaped by many diverse people, especially students, educators, and schools across the U.S.
  • In the 1960s, time-sharing computing networks emerged at universities and schools. They allowed multiple users to access a central mainframe computer from terminals located miles away. Students and teachers used these networks for learning and recreation.
  • Time-sharing networks fostered creativity, collaboration, and community. They were idealistic, public-minded projects aiming to provide access to computing as a public good. Sharing and social interaction were central to their use.
  • Examples include a New England network used for multiplayer games and messaging; networks in Minnesota where students created music, poetry and math activities; and PLATO, a plasma-screen network at the University of Illinois that allowed instant messaging and screen sharing.
  • Rankin argues we should recognize the role of students, teachers and schools in developing digital culture, not just private companies and tech entrepreneurs. Time-sharing networks showed how computing could shape society in open, communal ways before the rise of personal computers.

In summary, Rankin provides a people’s history of computing that highlights the collaborative, social roots of digital culture in American schools and universities during the 1960s and 70s. This challenges the Silicon Valley mythology of computing progress driven by isolated genius and private enterprise.

The key points in the summary are:

  • College students and users were central to the creation of the Dartmouth time-sharing network in the early 1960s. Professors Thomas Kurtz and John Kemeny designed the system for user convenience instead of computer efficiency. They provided free computing access for all students.

  • The Dartmouth campus culture, focused on football and fraternities, shaped the development of masculine computing. Gender roles from the Cold War nuclear family informed the roles of women employed at Dartmouth’s Computation Center.

  • The Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC) programming language, created for the Dartmouth network, became the language of computing citizens in the 1960s and 1970s. BASIC spread through educational computing newsletters, the Huntington Project’s educational computer simulations, and Digital Equipment Corporation’s distribution of materials to sell BASIC-enabled minicomputers to schools.

  • There was widespread discussion of computing as a public utility, like electricity or telephone service, in the 1960s and 1970s. Time-sharing and the vision for networked computing for public benefit were not short-lived. They were not limited to MIT and its Multics project. Overlooked is that time-sharing systems were networks and users appreciated their communication capacities.

  • Minnesota led the U.S. in creating computing citizens from 1965 to 1980 by implementing statewide interactive computing in public schools and universities. Students and educators developed new modes of software sharing and banking. By the late 1970s, students frequently played games like The Oregon Trail. This illustrates an alternative vision of networked computing.

  • At the University of Illinois, Donald Bitzer recruited students and scholars to create PLATO, a personal computing terminal for education. Bitzer opened PLATO to users across and beyond campus. PLATO began as a time-sharing system but developed revolutionary personal terminals.

In the late 1950s, computing was largely inaccessible to most people. Professor Tom Kurtz had to travel 3 hours by train to use an IBM mainframe at MIT to run his programs. By the late 1960s, computing became more accessible, especially at Dartmouth College. Students like Greg Dobbs could walk a few minutes to use the college’s Kiewit Computation Center and its dozens of terminals to run programs and play games.

Within a decade, between 1958 to 1968, computing went from being a rare, time-consuming activity to an accessible part of student life at Dartmouth. This was thanks to the work of professors like Kurtz and Kemeny, who helped make computing more interactive, hands-on and social. They developed the Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS) which allowed students to directly interact with and program the computer through teletype terminals. This made computing a collaborative, educational experience for students in the 1960s.

  • In 1958, computers were large, expensive, and inaccessible to most people. They were used primarily by the military, businesses, and a few universities for specialized research.

  • At universities like MIT, students submitted computer programs in the form of punched cards. The programs were organized into batches to maximize computer processing time. This meant students often had to wait hours or days to get the results of their programs.

  • John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, mathematicians at Dartmouth College, were frustrated with this inefficient batch processing system. They wanted to make computing more interactive and accessible to students and faculty across departments.

  • Dartmouth College was an exclusive Ivy League school that did not admit women until 1972. In the 1960s, the student body was predominantly white and affluent.

  • Kemeny was recruited to Dartmouth in the mid-1950s to help revitalize the mathematics department. He joined Kurtz, who was already at Dartmouth, to transform computing.

John Kemeny earned a doctorate in mathematics from Princeton University in 1949. He joined the faculty at Dartmouth College in 1953 and became chair of the mathematics department in 1955.

Kemeny was interested in education and believed mathematics, education, and computing would significantly impact society. He obtained an LGP-30 computer for Dartmouth in 1959 to attract strong math students. Students learned to program the LGP-30, and some created programming languages and an algebraic language compiler for it.

Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, a statistics professor, were frustrated with the limitations of the LGP-30 and batch processing. Kurtz proposed providing free, universal student access to computing through time-sharing. They learned of time-sharing from John McCarthy, a former Dartmouth colleague now at MIT. Fernando Corbató’s group at MIT was implementing a time-sharing system.

Kurtz envisioned time-sharing giving students interactive access to programming, compiling, and debugging on a mainframe computer. The time-sharing system would prioritize shorter user programs to provide fast response times, even with many simultaneous users.

Kemeny and Kurtz were focused on users’ needs and interested in making computing accessible and useful for students. They would build on Kurtz’s time-sharing vision and the work at MIT to develop Dartmouth’s time-sharing system.

John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz wanted to implement time-sharing at Dartmouth so that all students could have open access to computing. They envisioned time-sharing differently than it was implemented at MIT and other universities at the time. Kemeny and Kurtz wanted widespread student use, not just access for scientists and engineers.

Kemeny and Kurtz proposed using two GE computers, the GE-225 mainframe and the Datanet-30 communications processor, to achieve time-sharing. The Datanet-30 could manage multiple user requests and pass them to the GE-225, then return the results to users. This two-computer approach was unconventional. GE had not considered using these two systems together for time-sharing until Kemeny and Kurtz suggested it.

Kemeny and Kurtz negotiated with GE to provide the computers at a discount in exchange for Dartmouth’s help implementing time-sharing. GE rejected a full partnership but offered a 60% discount. Kemeny and Kurtz then persuaded Dartmouth’s administration to fund the purchase.

In a speech to Dartmouth’s trustees, Kemeny argued that computing access was essential for students’ education and future careers. He believed all students, not just scientists and engineers, should learn computing. Kemeny’s vision was broader than that of other computing pioneers at the time, who focused more on improving technology itself.

Dartmouth’s liberal arts focus and lack of government-funded research gave Kemeny and Kurtz more freedom to provide open computing access to all students. Their goal was to make computing as accessible as the library.

  • Dartmouth College received funding from the National Science Foundation to establish a campus-wide computing center with multiple terminals connected through time-sharing to a central mainframe computer.

  • John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, mathematics professors, led the effort. They wanted to maximize human productivity and make computing convenient and accessible to all students, regardless of their field of study.

  • Kemeny and Kurtz decided to develop a new easy-to-learn programming language called BASIC so students could start interacting with and programming the computer quickly.

  • They prioritized simplicity, ease of use, and user convenience over maximizing the computer’s efficiency. Their goal was to familiarize students with computing, not turn them into expert programmers.

  • Two GE computers were delivered in March 1964. Kemeny, Kurtz, and their student programmers then had to learn how to program the computers to implement a time-sharing system and the new BASIC language.

  • Once operational, the new system would require all first-year students in mathematics courses to learn programming as a way of introducing hundreds of students to computing each year.

  • The ultimate vision was for thousands of undergraduates from all fields of study to use the time-sharing system productively. The team sought to create computing citizens, not just computer scientists.

  • In 1964, John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz built a time-sharing system at Dartmouth College that allowed multiple users to access a central computer from remote terminals.

  • They used two GE 225 mainframe computers and connected them via telephone lines to 21 teletype terminals, including one at a local high school.

  • They integrated the use of their time-sharing system and the BASIC programming language into required first-year math courses so most students learned how to use them.

  • To simplify grading hundreds of student programs, they developed a program called TEACH that would automatically test and evaluate student programs. Students who passed would get a note to submit to their professor for credit.

  • Jim Lawrie, a Dartmouth student, vividly recalled his first experience using the time-sharing system. He had to type “HELLO” to log in, enter his student ID, choose to use BASIC, and name his new program. The teletype would then print “READY” indicating he could start programming.

  • Kemeny and Kurtz’s system made computing more accessible and demystified it for students. Their emphasis was on user-friendliness and practical applications.

The Kiewit Computation Center opened in 1966 as the hub of Dartmouth’s computing network. It was a state-of-the-art facility funded by alumnus Peter Kiewit. Kiewit was prominently located on campus and became a social space for students. Dartmouth promoted its computing as pervasive, accessible, and creative. All students received free computing time, and they used it for a wide range of purposes, from homework to socializing. The openness and enthusiasm surrounding computing at Dartmouth set it apart during this era.

The Dartmouth computing network provided free and open access to computing for students and faculty. This accessibility and the ease of the BASIC programming language led to tremendous creativity among students. Students created computer art, played games, and programmed simulated slot machines and sports.

John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, who led the Dartmouth computing efforts, promoted the idea of “good computing citizenship.” This meant respecting the limited computing resources, reporting any issues promptly, sharing terminals, and contributing programs to the shared library.

Kemeny believed computing was essential for leadership and good citizenship. He required all first-year students to create BASIC programs for math courses to learn computing. Although Kemeny associated computing with leadership, requiring it in math courses associated it more with mathematics. This excluded some students from learning computing together.

Although students learned BASIC in math courses, Dartmouth cultivated a masculine computing culture centered on games, especially football. The college’s football team was a source of pride, in contrast to the mental act of programming. The student ALGOL compiler was named SCALP, appropriating the stereotype of Native American “scalping.” The computing center encouraged gaming, including three versions of digital football. This brought the masculine bonding of football into the computing center.

The summary outlines how Dartmouth promoted an accessible yet masculine computing culture, required computing in math courses, and encouraged gaming and football to foster school spirit in the computing center. Although Kemeny saw computing as leadership training, the requirements and culture centered computing more on mathematics, games, and masculinity.

  • In 1965, Dartmouth students were excited by the football team’s win over Princeton, their rival alma mater. The game reinforced the school’s masculine culture.

  • Computers and computing at Dartmouth were also closely tied to this masculine culture. The computer center was even named Kiewit, after a major donor, to sound like “keep it.” Students often brought dates to the computer center before football games to show off their computing skills.

  • Students used the time-sharing system and games like FOOTBALL, SALVO42, and POKER to socialize and connect with each other, especially around football games when women from other schools visited. These games reinforced gender stereotypes and heteronormativity.

  • Although women worked at the Dartmouth computer center in technical roles like applications programmers, operators, and coordinators, their work was often invisible and devalued. The teletype, in particular, had been women’s work for 50 years but was now claimed as a masculine technology at Dartmouth.

  • Key figures like John Kemeny, who became president of Dartmouth, supported this masculine computing culture. Kemeny once called a female employee in a panic over the FOOTBALL program being down.

  • In summary, computing at 1960s Dartmouth promoted a “macho” culture that aligned with the school’s masculine values at the time, even as women did much of the technical work to build and run the computing systems. Students used the technology in creative ways to connect with each other but also to reinforce traditional gender roles.

  • Janet Price, who earned a PhD in psychology, was one of the first programmers for the Dartmouth network in the 1960s. Along with other women like Nancy Broadhead, Ruth Bogart, and Diane Hills, Price helped support faculty and research projects. However, women programmers were often identified by their marital status while men were just called “Mister”.

  • Dartmouth relied heavily on student programmers, who were all male, to develop and maintain the college’s computing system. These students culti-vated a masculine computing culture that mocked less technically-skilled students. Even after Dartmouth began admitting women undergraduates in 1972, very few women worked as student programmers at the Computation Center.

  • Dartmouth’s computing culture was also predominantly white. Discussions about race were rare but revealed assumptions of whiteness as the norm. For example, an ABC program that offered scholarships to “disadvantaged” students mostly aided white students from low-income families. Very few students of color attended Dartmouth at this time.

  • In summary, computing at Dartmouth in the 1960s and 70s was a space dominated by white men, especially students, who shaped a masculine culture around their technical expertise and control of the system. While a few women worked in supporting roles, they faced discrimination and marginalization. Racial minorities were largely absent from Dartmouth’s computing community during this period.

The report discussed the ABC program at Dartmouth College which recruited and supported minority students, most of whom were Black. While the college was proud of the program and its support for diversifying the student body, reports about the ABC program also emphasized these students as “different” which reinforced the perception of Dartmouth computing as predominantly white. The Kiewit Center promoted some well-intentioned programs aimed at combating racial stereotypes, but these programs may have actually reinforced racial stereotyping by drawing attention to racial differences. Although Kiewit downplayed the white, heteronormative culture of campus computing, it promoted its connections to computing networks beyond Dartmouth which gave the appearance of diversity.

  • BASIC (Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) became popular as an easy-to-learn programming language for hobbyists and students in the 1960s and 1970s.

  • Before BASIC, programming languages were complex and designed for professionals. BASIC was designed to be simple and accessible to casual users.

  • BASIC was created at Dartmouth College by John Kemeny and Tom Kurtz to allow students and faculty to easily use the school’s GE-225 mainframe computer.

  • BASIC spread from Dartmouth through their time-sharing network and by being picked up by other schools and technology companies. It became very popular and allowed casual users all over to learn how to code.

  • BASIC was often criticized by professionals for being too simple, but that simplicity is what allowed it to spread widely and gain mainstream popularity.

  • The spread of BASIC allowed users to overcome compatibility issues that plagued computing in the 1960s. A program written in BASIC could run on many different types of computers.

  • BASIC became a “lingua franca” - a common language that united users. Its syntax resembled simple English, making it easy to pick up.

That covers the key points about the rise and spread of BASIC in the 1960s and 70s. Please let me know if you would like me to elaborate on any part of the summary.

Programs written in FORTRAN and other languages at the time typically could not run on different types of computers. Programs were also usually proprietary and not shared. In contrast, programs written in BASIC could often run on many different computers with minor changes and were frequently shared.

Comparing FORTRAN and BASIC for solving similar problems shows the advantages of BASIC. Developing a ski competition scoring program took 50 hours in FORTRAN but only 10 in BASIC.

BASIC was designed to be easy to use, resembling English, and able to run on time-sharing networks. It was flexible and powerful enough for many uses, not just business or academic. Students, teachers, and networks popularized BASIC, making it the common language of casual computing.

BASIC originated at Dartmouth, created to give students and faculty easy access to computing. Kemeny designed BASIC to be very simple to learn and use, sacrificing some capabilities to gain accessibility. The simplicity allowed users to feel like the computer understood BASIC, facilitating direct communication. Kemeny wanted computing to become personal, which required an approachable language.

Comparing BASIC to FORTRAN shows how much simpler and more accessible BASIC was. FORTRAN required learning many rules before you could write a program. BASIC was much easier to start using productively.

So in summary, BASIC was designed to bring computing to more people through simplicity and sharing. It spread through networks, educators, and students, becoming popular and enabling casual computing by novices. Its origins at Dartmouth and differences from FORTRAN highlight how it achieved these goals.

John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz created the BASIC programming language and implemented it on Dartmouth’s time-sharing system. They believed that computing could be useful and accessible to people without advanced technical training. Their time-sharing system and the BASIC language enabled many people to use computing for the first time.

Kemeny and Kurtz highlighted how students could learn to create simple but useful programs with just a few BASIC commands. They gave an example of a program called CONVRT that could convert between metric and imperial units. CONVRT used only 7 of the 9 basic BASIC commands.

Kemeny and Kurtz anticipated people outside Dartmouth using their system. High school students in nearby Hanover gained access and formed a computer club. The students impressed Dartmouth faculty with their creativity in using the system for various applications like scoring events, gaming, and more. This showed how BASIC and time-sharing enabled new people to start computing and creating their own programs.

In summary, Kemeny, Kurtz, BASIC, and Dartmouth’s time-sharing system helped popularize computing and make it more accessible to new groups of people. They provided the tools and environment for people to learn computing and become creators.

  • John Kemeny fondly recalled providing elementary students, including his son, a tour of Dartmouth’s time-sharing system shortly after it was set up.

  • After the tour, a girl told her teacher she “understood perfectly every thing Mr. Kemeny did on the computer” but didn’t understand “a great big box that looked like a refrigerator” in the basement. This showed Kemeny that for users, the teletype represented the entire computing system.

  • Students at Hanover High School, near Dartmouth, had enthusiastic access to Dartmouth’s time-sharing system via a teletype at their school and by walking to Dartmouth. They learned from each other and Dartmouth students and faculty.

  • Seeing Hanover High’s success, Dartmouth provided time-sharing access to 8 more high schools by 1967, including Phillips Exeter Academy. Exeter had a close relationship with Dartmouth and strong support for computing. By 1968, a student reported computing was popular and students had written thousands of programs, including many games.

  • To formally support high school computing, Dartmouth got an NSF grant for a secondary school time-sharing network. The grant provided teletypes, phone lines, a coordinator, training, newsletters, and support for schools in the network.

  • The Dartmouth Secondary School Project connected 18 high schools in New England to Dartmouth’s time-sharing system and BASIC programming language.

  • The project aimed to expose many students and teachers to computing with minimal restrictions. Students and teachers were largely free to explore computing for their own purposes.

  • The students loved using the teletypes and BASIC. They saturated the available teletypes, using them for up to 12 hours a day and on weekends. Some students woke up early to use them. Schools had to implement policies to prevent overuse.

  • Students created an imaginative range of programs, including many games, as well as programs for math, poetry, taxes, sports, and school activities. The project encouraged gaming and celebrated students’ creativity.

  • Students valued the computing access and found it entertaining and useful for assignments. Although a few students did not see the value, many feared losing access to the teletypes.

  • The project and students’ computing received substantial local media attention. Participating schools proudly announced their students’ computing activities.

  • The project demonstrated students’ enthusiasm for personal and social computing, especially gaming and sharing news on their “gossip file.” Although basic, computing and BASIC enthralled many students.

  • The report does not comment on the diversity of participating schools. Accounts from around the same time note the “poverty problems” and issues of “race relations” in the region as well as efforts to diversify elite private schools. The percentages of students attending 4-year colleges varied dramatically, reflecting socioeconomic differences.

The summary highlights the key details and events of the Dartmouth Secondary School Project, including the goals, student experiences, types of programs, and context. The summary points to the enthusiasm for even basic computing and social connections, as well as the lack of discussion of diversity, among the findings.

The Dartmouth network enabled thousands of high school students to learn BASIC programming in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although some girls participated, most students were boys, especially at private all-male schools. Some teachers, especially women, were also important computing citizens and learned alongside their students. Dartmouth coordinated the project, provided technical support, organized competitions and events, published resources, and encouraged innovation. The network connected students across schools and strengthened a sense of community.

  • Dartmouth received an NSF grant to start a College Consortium that provided access to Dartmouth’s time-sharing system and BASIC to nine nearby colleges from 1968 to 1969.

  • The Consortium was loosely organized but showed the value of Dartmouth’s computing network as a shared resource that enabled communication and connection beyond just using the computers.

  • Thousands of students at the colleges used DTSS and BASIC for various personal, social, and academic purposes. For example, some Mount Holyoke women used it to communicate with Dartmouth men, and one couple even first met and courted over the system.

  • After the NSF funding ended, some schools got their own time-sharing systems, some stayed on Dartmouth’s, and Dartmouth’s network continued expanding to many schools. By 1971, Dartmouth’s network included 50 schools and over 13,000 users, though only 3,000 were actually at Dartmouth.

  • Bob Albrecht learned about BASIC and became an enthusiastic advocate for teaching computing, especially to kids. He worked for Control Data traveling around promoting computing education. When he encountered BASIC, he preferred it to FORTRAN and promoted it, even creating the Society to Help Abolish FORTRAN Teaching (SHAFT).

  • Albrecht spread the word about BASIC and time-sharing through his work with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The NCTM ended up publishing introductions to computing that praised time-sharing and a book on BASIC, helping to validate and spread BASIC.

So in summary, Dartmouth’s time-sharing system and BASIC spread through both organized efforts like the College Consortium grant and the grassroots advocacy of people like Bob Albrecht. Their work helped make BASIC a popular and accessible programming language, especially for education.

  • Bob Albrecht founded the People’s Computer Company to spread computing to ordinary people, especially students.

  • Albrecht was an enthusiastic advocate for BASIC as the language of the people’s computing.

  • Albrecht traveled around the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, demonstrating computing and teaching BASIC. He later did this in California with a DEC PDP-8 minicomputer in the back of his van.

  • Albrecht’s book My Computer Likes Me When I Speak in BASIC, published in 1972, sold over 250,000 copies. It taught BASIC using examples related to population growth and environmental issues.

  • The People’s Computer Company newsletter, also founded in 1972, spread computing by publishing games, tutorials, and other materials for readers to use on time-sharing systems.

  • The People’s Computer Center provided hands-on access to computing in San Francisco.

  • DEC’s minicomputers, especially the PDP-8, were essential for spreading time-sharing computing and for Albrecht’s and the People’s Computer Company’s work.

  • The Huntington Computer Project, whose materials DEC also distributed, created simulations that Albrecht demonstrated in his computing roadshow.

  • Time-sharing computing spread in the 1970s largely due to minicomputers like the DEC PDP-8. DEC originally targeted scientists and engineers but then reached schools and amateurs.

In 1962, there were approximately 10,000 computers in the world. The PDP-8 minicomputer, released in 1965 by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), became the best-selling computer from 1973 to 1977. DEC sold the PDP-8 for a fraction of the cost of mainframe computers. The PDP-8 was also much smaller in size than mainframes. DEC used integrated circuits to build the PDP-8. DEC also made a time-sharing version of the PDP-8 that allowed many people to use its computing power at once.

Many schools, universities, research labs, and small businesses used the PDP-8 and learned to write programs in BASIC. DEC’s later PDP-11 matched the power of earlier IBM mainframes at a much lower cost. The PDP-11 could also be used for time-sharing and to run BASIC programs.

DEC’s success with minicomputers led many other companies to enter the market. These companies often included BASIC with their minicomputers to show they were as useful as DEC’s products. Between 1965 and 1970, over 100 new minicomputer companies were founded. DEC and others freely shared information about BASIC, allowing people to easily move between different companies’ versions of BASIC.

BASIC spread to many time-sharing mainframes and minicomputer systems. Millions of people learned BASIC through minicomputers, especially in education. In 1972, DEC claimed over 1 million students had used its computers.

DEC was praised for freely distributing programming resources. The Huntington Computer Project created 17 simulations in BASIC for schools between 1970 and 1974. Students could run the simulations on teletype terminals connected to minicomputers. The project spread to hundreds of schools and thousands of students, demonstrating the value of simulations and computing in education. DEC helped publish and distribute materials from the Huntington Project, selling over 25,000 manuals between 1972 and 1973.

BASIC allowed people to make personal and social use of computing resources. They could solve problems, play games, learn about computing, and be creative. Although accessing a computer was not enough, BASIC helped transform computers into tools for individuals and groups.

  • In 1961, John McCarthy, a prominent computer thinker, gave a lecture at MIT advocating for time-sharing computing and proposing the idea of a national computing utility.

  • McCarthy compared a computing utility to public utilities like telephone and electricity. He envisioned computing as a public good available to all citizens.

  • McCarthy’s lecture was significant because it happened at MIT, a leader in computing, endorsed time-sharing, and proposed the computing utility model.

  • MIT’s Martin Greenberger also promoted the idea of a computing utility. In 1964, he wrote that time-sharing networks could enable widespread access to computing power for education, commerce, and public services.

  • GE’s partnership with Dartmouth and its successful time-sharing business gave credibility to the computing utility model. GE sold time-sharing services from the mid-1960s through the 1980s.

  • The computing utility model was discussed at conferences and in publications throughout the 1960s. It promised nationwide access to computing but faced technological, economic and regulatory obstacles.

  • Gender roles shaped how proponents described the potential uses and benefits of a national computing network. They focused on benefits to middle-class nuclear families, with a gendered separation of public/fiduciary (male) and private/domestic (female) responsibilities.

  • Many academic and commercial computing networks emerged in the 1965 to 1975 period, reflecting a desire for computer resource sharing and communal computing. But most networks prioritized science and engineering, unlike Dartmouth’s network.

  • In the early 1960s, business and government leaders, journalists, and the public saw MIT, time-sharing, and the computer utility as closely connected.

  • MIT had earned a reputation for computing with Project Whirlwind, which developed new computer memory and real-time computing, and the SAGE air defense system.

  • In 1961, MIT held a lecture series on “Computers and the World of the Future.” Speakers included major figures like John McCarthy, Jay Forrester, and Marvin Minsky.

  • In his lecture, John McCarthy advocated for time-sharing systems that could support many simultaneous users, comparing them to public utilities like the telephone system.

  • McCarthy envisioned time-sharing systems with thousands of users, graphical displays, and a computing utility industry. He saw the potential for governments to support computing utilities like they did for telephone service.

  • McCarthy’s vision shaped hopes for computing over the next decade. MIT built a time-sharing system, Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS), though it was mainly for scientists and engineers.

  • Though McCarthy focused on a commercial computing utility, Dartmouth had envisioned a computing utility more like a library, subsidized to provide free access.

  • The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 led the U.S. to increase funding for science and technology research, including in computing.

  • J.C.R. Licklider was appointed head of the Information Processing Techniques Office at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in 1962. He focused on interactive computing and awarded funding to MIT and other institutions for this purpose.

  • In 1965, ARPA awarded MIT $3 million to expand Project MAC, one of the first time-sharing systems. Project MAC demonstrated the viability of time-sharing and computing utilities.

  • In the mid-1960s, many saw time-sharing and computing utilities as a promising new market. Companies were founded to provide time-sharing services, and the market was valued at over $15 million per year by 1967.

  • GE originally entered the computer industry in 1956 to build a system for the Bank of America. GE was initially not interested in time-sharing but became interested after Dartmouth representatives explained the concept.

  • GE and Dartmouth collaborated on developing time-sharing from the start. GE eventually created a time-sharing system called Mark I that was loosely based on the Dartmouth system. GE began offering commercial time-sharing services in 1967 through a subsidiary called GE Information Services Company (GEISCO).

  • GE’s early time-sharing customers were large companies and government agencies. GEISCO focused on providing computing power and data processing rather than software tools or industry-specific applications. Customers had their own programmers develop software.

  • The computing utility bubble burst by 1970. Many companies went out of business, and GE largely withdrew from commercial time-sharing. However, GEISCO continued operating and providing services to existing customers.

General Electric initially frowned upon providing computers to Dartmouth College for their time-sharing project. However, GE went ahead and provided the computers. GE employees recognized this as an important step for the company’s computer department.

In 1964, as Dartmouth successfully implemented time-sharing, GE and Dartmouth stayed in close contact. GE delivered more powerful computers to Dartmouth to improve the time-sharing system. Dartmouth and GE promoted their time-sharing success at a conference, with GE paying most of the costs.

After the conference, GE had a working version of Dartmouth’s time-sharing system and BASIC. GE then launched a time-sharing business, selling and leasing computers and opening service centers for access. GE marketed time-sharing and BASIC as easy to use and productive. By 1968, GE had time-sharing centers across the U.S. and world, with over 100,000 customers in Europe by 1970.

A Dartmouth student, Alex Conn, learned time-sharing and BASIC at Dartmouth. He later worked for GE in Paris, helping customers learn BASIC and time-sharing. He advocated teaching programming through flowcharts and diagrams. He also co-wrote an article on computing in education that promoted Dartmouth’s work.

So in summary, although GE was initially hesitant, the company’s partnership with Dartmouth on time-sharing was very successful. GE gained valuable technology and experience that it used to build a major time-sharing business. And Dartmouth gained more advanced computers to improve its system. A Dartmouth graduate even helped spread the time-sharing and BASIC knowledge internationally through GE. The relationship was clearly mutually beneficial.

In 1966, Dartmouth dedicated its new Kiewit Computation Center. At the dedication, John Kemeny envisioned a future national computing network in which every household had a terminal. Kemeny described how this network could benefit families, but in highly gendered terms. He said his daughter received computer time as a treat for being a “good girl,” reinforcing the notion that computing rewarded traditional feminine behavior. Kemeny also said housewives could use the network to efficiently program chores, create balanced menus, check prices, place orders, do banking, choose TV shows, and earn degrees without leaving home. His vision imagined the network simplifying housewive’s work, with women still responsible for chores and budgeting. The vision was radical but still reflected cultural gender norms.

A national network raised hopes but also fears about access, privacy, and control. Some saw potential for citizen participation while others worried about government surveillance. There were also concerns thatonly the wealthy could access computing. However, computing networks grew rapidly in the 1970s. GE and Tymshare offered time-sharing services into the 1990s. Revenues for the industry grew until 1983.

Kemeny’s ambitious and optimistic vision ignited hopes for how computing could transform society but also highlighted the gendered assumptions and power structures of the era. His vision reflected the promise and perils of national computing networks that continue to shape debates today.

  • Commentators in the 1960s focused on the benefits of a national computing utility primarily for men in their public, professional roles and as heads of households. They discussed benefits to industries like banking, retail, and insurance and envisioned computer-managed markets and financial systems. They described users as “customers” but revealed assumptions that customers were men responsible for families.

  • Kemeny argued that women could use computers for “diversion” at home but should remain in the domestic sphere. His vision of “domestic computing” made explicit the gendered assumptions of other commentators.

  • Greenberger briefly mentioned the possibility of “catalogue shopping from a convenience terminal at home” but otherwise focused on public uses of a computing utility for management, engineering, publishing, education, and research—fields dominated by men. His mention of “convenience” implied a domestic and feminine sphere.

  • Parkhill also focused on public uses of a computing utility, though he discussed computerized shopping in more depth. However, his vision of the shopper was an “active searcher” using “powerful analytical tools” to make informed decisions, characterizing utility shopping as a masculine endeavor.

  • Baran described using a home console for shopping, messaging, bill-paying, and scheduling. However, his examples revealed assumptions the user was a man, as he shopped for a “sport shirt,” paid bills and taxes, and needed reminders to avoid angering his wife on their anniversary.

  • Commentators expressed concern about privacy, security, and totalitarian control in a national computing utility that contained sensitive personal and business information. Parkhill in particular feared political repression and manipulation of data for private advantage. He warned that a computer utility could increase the efficiency of totalitarian control.

In summary, while envisioning a future of networked computing and speculating on both public and private uses of a national computing utility, commentators revealed assumptions that the primary users and beneficiaries would be adult men, consistent with prevailing gender roles of the time. At the same time, they expressed concerns about threats to privacy, security, and democracy posed by large-scale information systems and networks.

  • I.J. Good expressed concerns about the implications of computer networks but his perspective was not radical. He wrote at a time when the Soviet Union and memory of Nazi Germany were threatening. Like others, he said the government should show leadership in shaping networks.

  • Martin Greenberger organized a lecture series on computing in 1969-1970, co-sponsored by Johns Hopkins and the Brookings Institution. The series built on a 1961 MIT series. Speakers like John Kemeny and Herbert Simon participated in both.

  • Greenberger said computing had not met early promises because people held it at a distance. He said computing was a public concern.

  • In his lecture, Kemeny forecast how large networks could transform society. He proposed a National Computer Development Agency to fund and standardize networks to benefit society. He said companies and universities were not focused on social problems. He said the agency could have a big impact at little cost.

  • Kemeny was optimistic but acknowledged being an “incurable optimist.” Another speaker agreed action was needed to fulfill computing’s promise.

  • Kemeny made gendered assumptions, envisioning housewives using networks for shopping and businessmen using them for news. He said men went to offices to see secretaries, who could be replaced by computers. But he said networks could give women opportunities for education and work without sacrificing wifely roles.

  • Kemeny cited Dartmouth as an example but overlooked the diverse student and teacher uses of its network. His speech mirrored discussion of national networks that ignored youth and focused on the future based on gender norms.

In the 1960s, many envisioned nationwide computer networks that could provide computing as a utility, like electricity. There were discussions of having many regional networks, a few national networks, or a single national network. Organizations like EDUCOM promoted collaboration on computing and networking among universities.

By the mid-1970s, there were about 30 regional academic computing networks, plus commercial networks. The University of Hawaii created an early wide-area network connecting islands and linking to the ARPANET. North Carolina had a network of over 50 schools and colleges. Iowa had a network serving 13 schools.

These early networks showed that computing networks included not just equipment and software, but communities of people using and helping each other. Many felt government should support development of a “computer utility” and saw parallels to the rise of electric utilities.

In Minnesota, early connections to Dartmouth’s network led to development of a statewide academic time-sharing network by the mid-1970s. The network and associated software enabled innovative uses, like the early educational game The Oregon Trail.

Though there were many visions of what a national computing network might be, the reality that emerged was a proliferation of regional and specialized networks, often focused on serving particular communities. These networks enabled new forms of computing participation and creativity.

  • In 1965, teachers at University High School (UHigh) in Minneapolis conducted an experiment to introduce computing to their students using Dartmouth’s time-sharing system.

  • Dale LaFrenz and his colleagues wanted to see if computers could be used effectively in education. They connected UHigh to Dartmouth’s system via a teletype, allowing students hands-on access.

  • The experiment started in 1965-66, funded by a GE grant. 7th, 9th and 11th grade math classes used the system to learn topics like order of operations, exponentials, and linear/quadratic equations.

  • The experiment showed the potential of computing for education. The teachers were able to get more funding and spread computing to more schools by promoting its benefits.

  • Their success and advocacy led to the creation of TIES, a cooperative of 18 school districts to provide computing resources, and MECC, a statewide network reaching 84% of MN students by 1975.

  • TIES and MECC cultivated a participatory computing culture, with users creating and sharing their own programs in a social community. The Oregon Trail game emerged from this culture.

  • Minnesota had a strong computer industry, economy and culture at the time, priming the area for innovations in educational technology like TIES, MECC, and The Oregon Trail.

In the mid-1960s, teachers at University High School (UHigh) in Minneapolis connected their students to time-sharing systems at Dartmouth College and then a local company, Pillsbury, to provide opportunities for students in grades 7-12 to gain computing experience. These teachers spread knowledge of their experiment through their professional network, the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Their efforts led to the creation of a cooperative called the Twin Cities Instructional Computing Services (TIES) in 1966. TIES was formed through a state law allowing political subdivisions like school districts to band together. It aimed to provide both administrative and instructional computing services for schools in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

  • TIES was an ambitious collaborative computing project across Minnesota school districts that would have been nearly impossible for any single district to fund on its own.

  • TIES envisioned a system that went beyond just data processing to include training, software development, and student computing.

  • TIES secured federal funding and aimed to become self-sustaining through membership fees from participating districts. As more districts joined, costs decreased for all members.

  • TIES used meetings, local coordinators in each district, and newsletters to spread information about their project and recruit new members. These strategies created a social network that paralleled their technological network.

  • TIES’ focus on people and community was key to their success. They provided frequent training and support for members. Each district had a coordinator who served as a liaison, and TIES published a newsletter with information from across their network.

  • TIES became a software repository, allowing members to share programs. Use of their system and software exploded, leading them to create a help desk role in each district. They also established licensing procedures to manage demand for the system.

  • TIES launched a newsletter devoted specifically to sharing information about student computing, demonstrating the enthusiasm for their work.

  • By the early 1970s, there were several time-sharing networks providing computing access to students and educators in Minnesota.

  • The proliferation and costs of these various computing initiatives led the Minnesota governor to form a committee to review the state’s educational computing activities.

  • The committee aimed to provide computing access to students across the state, contain costs, and build on the success of existing cooperatives like TIES.

  • They proposed MECC to unite K-12 schools, community colleges, and universities under one organization.

  • However, the different communities questioned MECC from the outset due to their diverse needs and interests. MECC had to balance these in creating a statewide network.

MECC originated as a government mandate to combine computing resources across educational institutions in Minnesota. However, it faced criticism about loss of local control and balancing different users’ needs. To address this, MECC incorporated “user rights” and local input into its structure.

MECC built upon existing computing knowledge and resources in Minnesota, including adopting techniques from TIES like meetings, newsletters, and coordinators. MECC’s goal was to provide time-sharing services across the state, utilizing existing systems from places like TIES, MERITSS, Minneapolis schools, and colleges. They worked to provide a common software library across these systems and build a statewide telecommunications network to support it.

In summary, MECC emerged into an environment with many existing interactive computing users and groups, with different experiences and needs. It aimed to serve all of these users across the state by relying on and building upon the existing computing work that had been developing in Minnesota over the past decade.

  • TIES and MECC built collaborative, user-focused, educational-driven computing networks around time-sharing systems in Minnesota.

  • They maximized computing opportunities and access, building networks to connect many different people with computers as soon as possible.

  • They improved technology when needed but prioritized increasing access. In the process, they helped redefine computing.

  • Hundreds of thousands of Minnesota students and educators made computing their own through TIES and MECC. For them, computers became accessible, interactive, and personally meaningful.

  • TIES and MECC show the importance of looking at unconventional settings and social practices, not just technical aspects, in the history of networks and computing.

  • They demonstrate the human labor required to build networked computing. We need to look beyond just devices and protocols.

  • TIES cultivated people as the crucial component of an information network. They organized as a social movement to spread computing.

  • Leaders like LaFrenz and Borry pushed the limits of 1960s-70s computing systems to connect computers and people. They didn’t dwell on limitations but maximized opportunities.

  • Donald Bitzer created the PLATO system at the University of Illinois in 1960.

  • PLATO began as a project to use computers for education. The first version was a one-user “teaching device” with a screen and keyboard connected to a mainframe computer.

  • By 1969, PLATO had become a multi-user time-sharing system with 35 terminals, each with a screen and keyboard, connected to a Control Data Corporation computer.

  • Under Bitzer’s leadership, PLATO also developed flat-panel plasma displays and touch screens. By 1975, nearly 1,000 PLATO terminals were in use across the country.

  • PLATO’s development was shaped by the Cold War context. Bitzer worked at the university’s Control Systems Laboratory, which did military-sponsored research. Bitzer used his experience there to envision PLATO’s possibilities.

  • PLATO provided information and tested students. Thousands of students and educators used PLATO for free, showing it supported a participatory, public vision of computing.

  • Focusing on PLATO’s hardware and users provides a new narrative of personal computing that doesn’t privilege Silicon Valley. PLATO developed personal terminals to meet users’ needs in an educational context.

PLATO was an early experimental computer system developed at the University of Illinois in the 1960s. It used plasma display screens to show text, images, and short films to students. The system included an “electronic book” to display prepared materials and an “electronic blackboard” where students and the computer could write and erase characters. Students interacted with PLATO using a keyboard and the display screen. The system was programmed with question-and-answer sequences to help students learn.

Initially, PLATO was conceived as a “teaching machine” to help with military education and training. To get funding, the developers had to show its potential value to the military and the university. They gave public demonstrations of PLATO to generate support and form partnerships with schools and educators. These partnerships helped transform PLATO from just a teaching machine into a collaborative system used by many different kinds of users.

One key partnership was with Donald Bitzer’s wife, Maryann, who used PLATO in an experiment to teach nursing students how to care for a patient having a heart attack. PLATO allowed the students to practice in a “simulated laboratory” without endangering real patients. Partnerships like this helped PLATO become an open, collaborative system instead of remaining a closed, specialized one.

In summary, PLATO started as an experimental teaching system but evolved into a broader collaborative computing environment through key partnerships and an openness to many types of users and applications. Although originally oriented toward the military, it became a platform for exploring how computing could enhance and transform education.

PLATO was an educational computer system created in 1960 at the University of Illinois. The system used a mainframe computer called the ILLIAC to power multiple student terminals. Each terminal had a small screen and a simple keyset with only a few buttons. By 1961, PLATO allowed two students to use the system at once via time-sharing.

Donald Bitzer, an electrical engineer, led the PLATO project. To reduce costs and improve the system, Bitzer wanted to develop an alternative to the expensive storage tubes used in the PLATO terminals. He directed research into creating a plasma display panel. Plasma panels contained ionized gas between two glass panels. Electrodes on the glass panels allowed different areas of the plasma to light up. The PLATO team saw the plasma panel as a digital display that could directly show the computer’s graphical output without needing the analog converters required by the cathode-ray tube displays they had been using.

In 1963 and 1964, the PLATO researchers worked to develop a plasma panel with an array of 256 by 256 addressable cells. They experimented with different ways to control which cells lit up and prevent unwanted cells from also lighting up. By the fall of 1964, they had created a working prototype plasma panel with a 16 by 16 cell array. The plasma panel showed promise as an inexpensive digital display for the PLATO system.

  • The PLATO team developed the plasma display panel in the mid-1960s to address problems with using CRT displays for their PLATO educational system.

  • They found that adjacent illuminated cells in their plasma panel array would also become illuminated, a problem they called “firing of adjacencies.” They solved this by placing the electrodes on the outside of the glass panels.

  • They also had to solve the problem of charge buildup, which they did by 1966. They then built a prototype 14-square-inch plasma display panel with 512 x 512 cells.

  • The PLATO team touted the plasma display panel as a solution to many of the problems with CRTs, including cost, the need for analog-digital converters, lack of built-in memory, high bandwidth requirements, large size, and high voltage needs. The plasma panel was digital, had built-in memory, needed little bandwidth, was thin, and operated at lower voltages.

  • Although developed as a cheaper alternative to CRTs, the plasma panel enabled the development of PLATO IV, which allowed for a huge expansion of the PLATO system. The plasma panel was key to the success and impact of PLATO.

  • PLATO matured during a “Golden Age of Education” in the U.S., with increased federal funding for education and technology in schools. The Soviet Sputnik launch spurred reforms, and the National Defense Education Act provided funding for technology and media in schools. The NSF also funded efforts to develop new science curricula. In 1967, a report recommended increased government support for computing in education, leading the NSF to fund educational computing.

So in summary, the PLATO plasma display panel was crucial to the development and success of PLATO. It was created to address problems with the cost and technical requirements of CRT displays, though it ended up enabling the PLATO IV system and revolutionizing PLATO. PLATO emerged during a time of major educational reform and increased federal funding and interest in education and technology.

The PLATO team began developing PLATO IV in 1966 with funding from NSF and others. They envisioned a large-scale computer-based education system with thousands of plasma display terminals. From 1972 to 1975, they built and demonstrated PLATO IV, which featured multimedia plasma display terminals with touchscreens, built-in audio, and reprogrammable keyboards. By 1975, there were 700 PLATO IV terminals used for over 120,000 hours per month. The plasma display terminals and interactive software enabled rich educational experiences.

  • Valarie Lamont was a graduate student at the University of Illinois in 1970.

  • She focused her environmental activism on pollution in the local Boneyard Creek.

  • She created a PLATO program to educate people about the creek and encourage them to participate in Earth Day.

  • The PLATO terminals allowed her to incorporate photos and films into her program and have an interactive dialogue with users.

  • She urged people to pick up litter, plant trees, and lobby government officials about the creek. Her PLATO program helped raise awareness and spur action.

  • Lamont’s use of PLATO demonstrates how it enabled new forms of activism, education, and community building. PLATO was not just used for traditional teaching.

  • This challenges the notion that computing was primarily centered on the ARPANET and Silicon Valley in the 1970s. PLATO created an early online community at the University of Illinois that needs to be accounted for in histories of computing.

The personal terminals on the PLATO network enabled new forms of political participation. Maryann Bitzer and Stuart Umpleby reimagined PLATO as an activist platform. Umpleby, a graduate student, saw PLATO as a corrective for societal upheaval. Working with psychologist Charles Osgood, Umpleby developed the DELPHI project to help people explore future scenarios and make difficult choices. Umpleby realized PLATO was a mass communications system that enabled feedback. He proposed using PLATO for “citizen sampling simulations” so people could communicate preferences to policymakers. Umpleby’s vision showed how PLATO moved from an educational system to an activist network.

The town police chief in POLIS, an educational program on PLATO, had to navigate upholding free speech in a controversial situation. The police chief had to consider the perspectives of a militant speaker, a conservative town council, and an increasingly agitated crowd. The program allowed the user playing the police chief to get advice from an in-game city attorney before deciding on a constitutional course of action. The program aimed to show the complexities of upholding free speech rights.

PLATO’s Republic (or, the Other ARPANET) explored digital citizenship through programs like POLIS and Boneyard Creek. Boneyard Creek described the history and pollution of a local stream, presented solutions, and called users to environmental action. It extended the teach-ins of the first Earth Day in 1970. Users could request information and provide feedback, experiencing both individual learning and a shared community space.

The Alternative Futures Project used PLATO to explore pressing social issues and new forms of political participation. Members investigated topics like legalized abortion, nuclear war, human cloning, and global aid programs.

From 1972 to 1975, ARPA funded PLATO terminals at 11 military sites across the U.S. connected to the main PLATO computer at the University of Illinois. This network allowed for communication and community between far-flung users, an early online community predating the public Internet.

  • t terminals were plasma display terminals connected in a network funded partly by ARPA.

  • This PLATO network allowed people to communicate with each other, just like the ARPANET.

  • The PLATO network had many communication features like instant messaging, screen sharing, digital message boards, and email.

  • By 1975, the PLATO network connected 145 locations and 950 terminals across the U.S. and even internationally.

  • The PLATO network was very popular for communication, with hundreds of messages and posts per week. This led to a strong sense of community among users.

  • New PLATO users had many resources to help them, unlike new ARPANET users at the time. The PLATO network was very user-friendly.

  • PLATO use peaked from 12,000 terminal hours per month in December 1974 to 120,000 terminal hours per month in October 1975, indicating widespread use.

  • PLATO had an active online community that exchanged messages on the system’s notes files. These files were preserved from October 1972 to June 1976.

  • The online community included system programmers, consultants, and hundreds of authors located around the U.S.

  • The community gave feedback to system programmers and the programmers made changes based on the feedback, though the programmers sometimes responded rudely or sarcastically. The community also collaborated with and helped each other.

  • The community demonstrated characteristics of online communities like etiquette policing, a mix of helpful and admonishing feedback, and a high level of readership and engagement.

  • There were many one-off exchanges showing authors reading and responding to each other’s posts, and authors sharing resources and information. The community was overall cooperative.

  • Authors sometimes disagreed with or stood up to programmers on behalf of other authors. The community valued manners and getting each other’s names right.

  • The summaries show PLATO had an active, collaborative online community years before the internet.

In the early 1970s, PLATO users faced several challenges regarding security and identity on the network. Their lessons and programs were vulnerable to intrusion by “file stompers” who deleted or altered content. PLATO staff urged authors to frequently change their security codes to access the system, but that did not prevent all breaches. Authors reported losing hours of work due to system crashes and file stomping.

Additionally, the anonymized nature of PLATO interactions led to issues verifying users’ identities. When his online identity was stolen, author Randy had to meet with PLATO staff in person to prove he was the legitimate account holder. For users outside the Champaign-Urbana area, verifying identity was more difficult. PLATO staff suggested relying on course directors or professors who knew the users personally.

The anonymized interactions on PLATO also led to surprises regarding users’ actual attributes like age, as Stewart Denenberg reported being shocked to discover the user helping him was 38 years old, much older than he had assumed based on the tone of their conversation. While Denenberg praised the egalitarian nature of PLATO communication, the anonymity clearly enabled misunderstandings and potential abuse. Resolving issues of privacy, security, and identity verification would remain an ongoing challenge as networked computing expanded.

In summary, early PLATO users grappled with balancing the benefits of anonymity and egalitarianism on the network with the need to establish secure systems and verified user identities. This tension between openness and privacy on digital networks persists today.

The PLATO network was dominated by men and often hostile toward women. Female users and consultants frequently received harassing messages, inappropriate comments, and patronizing treatment from male users that differed dramatically from the interactions between men. For example, in February 1974, consultant Denise called out abusive notes from several male users. The men apologized to each other but attacked Denise in personal, hostile ways.

In November 1974, user Teresa complained about frequent “crank calls” from men asking inappropriate questions about her gender, relationship status, and availability. Instead of offering help, male respondents criticized Teresa and blamed her for the harassment. User Sharon noted that she and Teresa received different treatment due to using obviously female first names. Sharon had also received patronizing comments from system programmers.

The discrimination against women on PLATO mirrored their treatment on campus. Some female students were reluctant to ask male gamers, who were disruptive, to leave the system. There were also reports of physical harassment of women on at least two occasions.

In summary, PLATO was a male-dominated network where women faced discrimination, harassment, and unequal treatment in ways that reflected the broader culture. While PLATO promoted certain ideals of an open exchange of information, in reality, the experiences of men and women on the system differed dramatically.

In November and December 1974, the PLATO classroom and operators’ room moved to new locations within the CERL building. The reasons for the move included better security, especially for the women’s restroom, after some “incidents” of threats and attacks.

The physical spaces and conditions of PLATO mattered greatly to users. They complained about smoking, noise, traffic, and crowds that made using PLATO challenging. Some worked late at night to avoid these issues.

There were many jokes and debates among PLATO users. A discussion about a user offering cookies to programmers in exchange for work turned into an extended joke. The appearance of a streaker on the login screen reflected the popularity of streaking on the Illinois campus at the time.

The appearance of Mickey Mouse on the login screen sparked a debate over whether PLATO was turning students into “robots” or inspiring creativity. Some saw PLATO as a way to make learning enjoyable, not just efficient, but others argued the login process itself was confusing for students.

In general, there were tensions over the purpose and culture of PLATO. Discussions touched on humor, recreation, and enjoyment versus efficiency, seriousness, and focus. The physical environment, youth and campus culture, and attitudes toward gender roles also influenced debates.

The PLATO network enabled personalized and engaging learning experiences. The appearance of Mickey the Mouse and the mailman’s truck at sign-on delighted users by making the technology more friendly and personal, though waiting for them frustrated some. The PLATO Press covered events and research on the network, though debates emerged over its content and censorship.

PLATO games were highly popular but controversial. Many enjoyed playing games, especially multiplayer ones that connected geographically distant players. However, some criticized them as frivolous, a waste of resources, and annoying, especially when they prevented other uses like lesson authoring. There were disputes over whether and when students and others could play games. The PLATO staff aimed for a hands-off policy but could not fully enforce rules against disruptive gaming.

Overall, PLATO fostered a rich social experience with many opportunities for personal expression and connection as well as debate. Bitzer envisioned individuals using PLATO for interactive, personalized learning and recreation, much as many do with technology today. The network was ahead of its time.

  • From 1965 to 1975, there was a golden age of networked computing where students, educators, and enthusiasts created personal and social computing before personal computers. They had access to networks and computing through their institutions and formed communities where they shared resources. They were computing citizens rather than just consumers.

  • The PLATO system emerged from the University of Illinois and Control Data Corporation formed a long-standing relationship with PLATO. CDC gave PLATO access to their computers in the early years. In 1976, the University of Illinois licensed PLATO to CDC, which then tried to commercialize it.

  • Two parallel PLATO systems emerged - one at the University of Illinois Computer-based Education Research Laboratory (CERL) and one controlled by CDC. The CDC PLATO system promoted a gaming culture and was more concerned with censorship and appealing to potential buyers. The PLATO systems ultimately shared little courseware as CDC developed much of its own. The quality of PLATO courses depended on the developers, and the PLATO programming language made complex, high-quality courses difficult to create.

  • There was a loss in the shift from personal computing to personal computers. Possibilities were foreclosed, connections were severed, and computing communities declined. Following PLATO, BASIC, and MECC into the 1980s shows these losses.

  • Control Data Corporation (CDC) invested heavily in PLATO but struggled to make a profit from it. PLATO was more successful at the University of Illinois, where it fostered an active computing community.

  • Bob Albrecht founded the People’s Computer Company in 1972 to spread information about personal computing and make computing accessible to more people.

  • The People’s Computer Company promoted BASIC and helped develop Tiny BASIC for early microcomputers with limited memory.

  • Bill Gates gained experience with BASIC and time-sharing computers as a student. He and Paul Allen sold a BASIC interpreter to MITS, maker of the Altair microcomputer.

  • Gates criticized the common practice of freely sharing software, conflating it with stealing. However, BASIC and software had often been freely shared previously to spread access to computing.

  • There was tension between the communal, accessible computing cultures promoted by some and the commercial interests of companies like CDC and Microsoft.

  • In the 1970s, Dr. Dobb’s Journal believed that software should be free or inexpensive so that people would not steal it. The editor distinguished between businesses/industries and hobbyists/academics, valuing the sharing ethic of the latter.

  • Bill Gates and Microsoft initially sold software to businesses but eventually sold directly to consumers. This marked a shift to people consuming rather than computing. People had to buy computers and software for personal use.

  • Steve Wozniak produced Integer BASIC for his computer and shared it, even publishing in Dr. Dobb’s Journal. When Steve Jobs saw it, they teamed up to sell the Apple I and then the Apple II. Although Apple said it would provide free or low-cost software, it aggressively sold hardware.

  • Ted Nelson recognized the emerging consumer market at the first West Coast Computer Faire. The “little computers” could be bought on credit cards, along with many accessories. Nelson saw it as a fad, cult, and consumer market that would excite the publicity machine.

  • MECC had a statewide computer network reaching many schools, colleges, and universities in Minnesota with 400,000 students. Staff valued the social aspects and people-to-people contact. The network aimed to provide the same computing opportunities across the state.

  • MECC adopted Apple IIs, gaining a role translating software from time-sharing BASIC to AppleSoft BASIC. MECC’s software was in demand worldwide. Its “membership” model allowed others to buy and share software. This helped Apple sell to students, parents, and schools.

  • Although MECC kept its time-sharing network into the 1980s because Apples were unreliable, the view that “microcomputers are it” prevailed. Over half of MECC’s Apples needed repair, limiting opportunities.

  • MECC turned to consumer ends, rechartering as a for-profit company. Revenues rose to $30 million, and Minnesota sold MECC. Once a model of personal computing, MECC represented the consumer market.

  • There was a shift from a focus on users, networks, and community to a focus on the user, machine, and personal. The creativity, collaboration, and community of 1960s-70s academic time-sharing networks shows the difference between computing citizens then and computing consumers in the 1980s onward.

  • Various networks from the 1960s on provide continuity, giving a richer portrait of digital culture. Virginia Heffernan’s experience on a 1980 Dartmouth Time-Sharing System chatroom shows early networks were social, not just technological.

  • The history of computing in the US is often told from a narrow perspective focused on certain individuals, technologies, corporations, or regions like Silicon Valley.

  • This book aims to offer an alternative “people’s history” of computing that highlights the experiences of users and communities across the country. It focuses on the period before 1975 and the rise of personal computing and networking.

  • The book challenges the notion that computing was primarily driven by the Cold War or the counterculture. It instead looks at how computing spread through schools, workplaces, and communities.

  • The book highlights the role of educational institutions and young people in shaping computing. Time-sharing networks, in particular, spread computing to many schools and allowed students and teachers to become both users and creators.

  • The book emphasizes “social computing” - how people forged social connections around and through computing. It sees users as active participants in shaping technology and knowledge.

  • The book aims to recover many local and personal histories of computing in the US to provide an alternative to histories focused on major tech corporations and “digital founding fathers.” It hopes to inspire many more people’s histories of computing.

  • The author’s goal is not to be exhaustive but to be definitive in demonstrating the diversity of computing experiences in the US before 1975. The history of computing is inseparable from broader American history.

  1. In the early 1960s, Dartmouth professors Thomas Kurtz and John Kemeny envisioned building an interactive, time-sharing computer system that could be used for teaching.

  2. They initially used an LGP-30 computer and created the Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC) programming language to make computing accessible to students.

  3. Kurtz and Kemeny were inspired by MIT’s experimental time-sharing system. They wanted to build a similar system at Dartmouth that could support multiple users at once and provide quick response times.

  4. They proposed their vision for the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System (DTSS) to Dartmouth’s administration and received funding from the National Science Foundation and General Electric.

  5. The DTSS launched in 1964 and allowed many users to access the mainframe computer through teletype terminals spread across campus. It demonstrated the feasibility and benefits of time-sharing.

  6. The DTSS and BASIC programming language made computing accessible to Dartmouth students and shaped their educational experiences with technology.

  7. Kurtz, Kemeny, and their students were central to developing and teaching the system. The DTSS reflected a partnership between faculty, students, and industry partner GE.

In summary, the development of the DTSS at Dartmouth in the 1960s showcased early synergies between citizenship, education, and computing. The system provided interactive access to computing for students and faculty across campus.

  • In 1965, Dartmouth received a $500,000 gift from Peter Kiewit to build a new computation center.

  • The new Kiewit Computation Center opened in 1966 with an IBM 360/50 computer and connected over 230 terminals to the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System.

  • The new center and advanced computing system gained significant national media attention and established Dartmouth as a leader in computing.

  • The center offered extensive resources and support for students, faculty, and staff, including documentation, training programs, and a software library.

  • The director of the center, Stephen Garland, started publishing a newsletter, Kiewit Comments, in 1969 to share information about the center’s resources and activities. The center also published technical memos to distribute code and programs.

  • The Kiewit Computation Center and Dartmouth Time-Sharing System made computing an integral part of campus life and culture at Dartmouth in the 1960s. The center shaped how people used and thought about computing at the college.

The author examined various documents related to Dartmouth College’s early computing, including Kiewit Comments newsletters from 1967 to 1971. The author notes that in these documents, mentions of female staff often included references to their marital status and families, while mentions of male staff rarely did so. The author sees this as evidence that gender roles and expectations were enforced in Dartmouth’s early computing culture.

The author also analyzed photographs from a report on 1973-1976 computing activities and found that the vast majority (about 85%) depicted men. An article from that time praising Dartmouth’s computing noted the “masculine culture.”

The author argues that early computing at Dartmouth was a space dominated by men, with strict expectations for appropriate gender roles and behavior. Women faced additional scrutiny and judgment that did not apply to their male counterparts. The culture of early campus computing was characterized by a masculine ethos that made the field unwelcoming for those who did not fit that image.

So in summary, the key points are:

  1. Documents show differential treatment of women, focusing on their domestic roles.

  2. Photographs and contemporary accounts depict a masculine culture in early Dartmouth computing.

  3. This masculine culture and strict enforcement of gender roles made computing a space dominated by men and less welcoming for women.

  4. Women in this space faced additional judgment and barriers not faced by men.

  5. Dartmouth’s early computing culture exhibited a masculine ethos that privileged some groups over others.

Does this summary accurately reflect the key details and arguments the author examines regarding gender in early Dartmouth computing? Let me know if you would like me to clarify or expand the summary.

  • The original BASIC programming language was developed at Dartmouth College in the 1960s to facilitate access to the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System (DTSS).

  • BASIC was intentionally designed to be easy to learn and use. It spread widely to schools in the 1960s and 1970s, popularized by Dartmouth professors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz.

  • The DTSS and BASIC enabled new interactive and collaborative ways of using computers for research, learning, and fun. Students, faculty, and community members engaged in interdisciplinary projects and built informal networks centered around the DTSS.

  • Dartmouth’s model spread to other schools and helped drive growing interest in providing students and teachers access to interactive computing. This catalyzed broader changes as people gained firsthand experience with digital technology.

  • Although simple, BASIC came to be seen as a “lingua franca” that enabled diverse communities of users to get started with programming and share their work. Its influence on popularizing computing and shaping programming culture has been profound and long-lasting.

  • The report documents a National Science Foundation grant to Dartmouth College to provide secondary schools access to Dartmouth’s time-sharing computer system from 1967 to 1970.

  • The project aimed to demonstrate the feasibility and benefits of providing computing access to high schools. Dartmouth provided teletype terminals to participating schools, allowing students to access Dartmouth’s mainframe computer remotely.

  • The report discusses the programming languages (BASIC and FOCAL) and aspects of the computing system made available to students, methods for incorporating computing into school curricula, examples of student work, and assessments of the project’s outcomes.

  • The project was quite successful, reaching about 3,000 students across New England. It helped Dartmouth promote and expand access to its time-sharing system. The project director, Thomas Kurtz, described Dartmouth’s efforts as “missionary work” to spread computing.

  • The project built on national enthusiasm for providing computing education and access to schools following recommendations from organizations like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Some saw it as a way to spread the “hacker ethic” of open access to computing.

  • The report provides insight into early efforts to incorporate computing into secondary education in the U.S. in the late 1960s. It illustrates Dartmouth’s role as an early leader in time-sharing and promoting access to interactive computing.

In the early 1960s, computing power was scarce and expensive, located at a few research centers and barely accessible to most. Visionaries like MIT’s John McCarthy predicted that “computing utilities” could make computing power broadly available through time-sharing systems. Time-sharing allowed multiple users to access a single mainframe computer simultaneously, giving each user a virtual private computer.

MIT launched two pioneering time-sharing projects, CTSS and Project MAC, in 1961 and 1963. They demonstrated the possibilities of time-sharing and laid the groundwork for later time-sharing systems. Surveys at the time predicted thousands to tens of thousands of computers in operation by the 1970s and 1980s.

In the mid-1960s, time-sharing was promoted as enabling a coming “information society.”Articles in major publications like Scientific American, Atlantic, and IEEE Spectrum touted the potential benefits of ubiquitous computing access and envisioned a future of man-computer “symbiosis.”

By the late 1960s, time-sharing had spread to universities and research centers across the U.S. and abroad. However, the cost savings and networking effects that proponents had predicted largely failed to materialize. Many time-sharing companies went out of business. Critics argued that time-sharing’s technical limitations, high costs, and lack of applications prevented it from achieving widespread commercial success.

Though time-sharing did not realize its vision of computing utilities and a new information society in the 1960s, it established concepts that influenced later developments like personal computing, computer networks, and the Internet. Time-sharing demonstrated the possibilities of networking and interactive computing, even if the technology of the time could not fully deliver on them.

Here are the key points from the summary:

  • John Kemeny gave a speech about large time-sharing networks in 1969.

  • He envisioned a future where computers and networks enabled innovative new services like remote shopping, education, and work.

  • Kemeny anticipated concerns about privacy, security, and the role of commercial companies providing computer services.

  • However, he was optimistic that regulations and social pressures could help address these concerns.

  • Kemeny also discussed the possibility of a “computerized society” where computers and networks transformed many aspects of people’s daily lives.

  • His vision showcased a belief in progress through technology that was common during the postwar era.

Here is a summary of the key points from the citations:

  • In 1967, the Minnesota School Districts Data Processing Joint Board (TIES) was formed to coordinate educational computing in Minnesota schools.

  • By 1973, TIES evolved into the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) to further develop computing resources for schools.

  • Dale LaFrenz, a former high school math teacher, helped bring computing to schools in Minnesota in the 1960s. He helped implement a computer-assisted math program at University High School.

  • University High School served as an experimental “laboratory school” for the University of Minnesota. It incorporated innovative teaching techniques, including educational computing.

  • In the mid-1960s, University High School implemented a computer-assisted math program for students. They learned math through a terminal connected to a university mainframe computer.

  • The computer-assisted math program showed promise for individualizing instruction and freeing up teachers’ time. However, cost and logistical issues prevented widespread adoption at the time.

  • The experiences at University High School helped inspire the creation of TIES and MECC to make computing more accessible across Minnesota schools.

  • TIES, MECC, and University High School were pioneers in bringing computing technology and new teaching methods to K-12 education in the U.S. Their work helped catalyze the growth of educational computing nationally.

  • In 1965, a high school in Minnesota began experimenting with using a computer for math instruction. Students enjoyed using the computer and math scores improved.

  • In 1967, two school districts and the University of Minnesota formed the Total Information for Educational Systems (TIES) consortium to promote computer use in K-12 schools. TIES held workshops, published a newsletter, and lobbied the state government.

  • In the early 1970s, TIES helped establish the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) to provide computer services to schools statewide. MECC operated a centralized computer system that schools could access via teletype terminals.

  • MECC’s services included access to educational software, training for teachers, and technical support. Many schools signed up to use MECC, and by 1978 over 300 schools were using the MECC system.

  • TIES and MECC were part of a grassroots movement to introduce computing to K-12 schools in Minnesota. They helped schools acquire resources and build expertise at a time when computing was new and unfamiliar to most educators.

  • The PLATO system was developed at the University of Illinois in the 1950s and 1960s.

  • PLATO originally used a neon plasma display panel to show graphics and text. It was connected to a mainframe computer and terminals with keyboards.

  • Early work on PLATO focused on high school math and science education. The system was later used for many other educational purposes, including nursing education.

  • Key PLATO features included a touch-sensitive plasma display, programming language for creating lessons, and time-sharing that allowed multiple users to access the mainframe simultaneously.

  • PLATO progressed from monochrome to two-color and then four-color plasma displays in the mid-1960s. This allowed for more sophisticated visuals in the lessons and programs.

  • Government funding and grants were important in supporting the early development of PLATO. The system was initially conceived for military training purposes during the Cold War.

  • Key innovators included Donald Bitzer, Peter Braunfeld, and Gene Stredde. They helped design the plasma display and other hardware, as well as the software and programming language for PLATO.

  • PLATO demonstrated some of the potential of computers for interactive education and graphics-based computer displays. It helped pioneer concepts that remain important in educational technology and computing today.

  • In the early 1960s, the PLATO system began developing a programming language called TUTOR to allow easy creation of lessons. By the mid-1960s, PLATO was being used for simulations and games, in addition to traditional coursework.

  • In the late 1960s, researchers Stuart Umpleby and Charles Osgood used PLATO to conduct “alternative futures” research, simulating possible social and political scenarios. They recruited students and community members to participate in these simulations.

  • Their work was part of a broader “futures studies” movement at the time, tied to the protest movements and desire for social change in the 1960s. The PLATO simulations allowed participants to envision and discuss alternative possibilities for society.

  • Umpleby and Osgood founded the Alternative Futures Project at the University of Illinois to further this work. They conducted simulations on topics like education, transportation, and community development. The project newsletter spread information about their methods to others interested in futures research.

  • In summary, PLATO’s capabilities for simulation and networking enabled new forms of public participation and speculation about the future during a time of social upheaval. The system’s alternative futures work demonstrated its potential as a platform for open-ended experimentation and discussion, not just computer-aided instruction.

The University of Illinois launched PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) in 1960. It was one of the first online education systems. Participants could access information, take courses, play games, and communicate with each other through PLATO terminals.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, PLATO was used for citizen engagement and community participation. Experiments included simulations of city planning issues and crowdsourcing environmental data. The PLATO network also connected military bases across the U.S. for education and training, with funding from ARPA.

PLATO developed an active online community, with users sharing information on internal “notes files.” These files show users helping each other learn the PLATO system, collaborating on projects, and even developing romantic relationships. The PLATO network exemplified the potential of computer networks to connect people and enable new forms of education, work, and relationships.

Though PLATO was eventually surpassed by newer technologies like personal computers and the Internet, it was an important pioneer in online education, social computing, and citizen participation. The University of Illinois archives have preserved many records from the PLATO system, providing a glimpse into this early online community.

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