How a little-known computer network system changed the history of the internet

Remarkably complex for its time, PLATO was the forerunner to computers today, with a strange creation story

Published November 19, 2017 11:00AM (EST)

 (Pantheon Books)
(Pantheon Books)

Excerpted from the book THE FRIENDLY ORANGE GLOW by Brian Dear. Copyright © 2017 by Brian Dear. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

December 6, 1979, fell during the week before finals, so some of Brodie Lockard’s Stanford gymnastics teammates were off studying. It started out like just another day of practice for Brodie and the team. But the day ended with Brodie in the hospital, where he would stay for the next nine months.

Most of what he knows of that day is based on what others have told him over the years. Like all gymnastics gyms, Stanford’s had a “landing pit,” or “crash pit,” as gymnasts often call it. In Stanford’s case it had been placed between the high bar on one side, and the trampoline on the other. The pit consisted of layers of foam rubber mats and foam gym pillows, which in the 1970s were still pretty primitive, says Brodie. In fact the whole pit was makeshift.

Brodie was dismounting from the trampoline into the foam, when—he’s not sure but thinks he was practicing a twist while in the middle of a flip—something went wrong. “I just jumped too high and too far, and landed where there was like a foot of foam, which didn’t do anything to break my fall.”

Often a victim of such an injury dies within minutes right on the spot, due to the paralysis affecting not only arms and legs, but of the diaphragm muscle. Lose that, and you can’t breathe, so you suffocate and die. As luck would have it Ted Marcy, a legendary Stanford gymnast but and fourth-year medical student was visiting his alma mater that day. He wasted no time in making the right diagnosis and started providing the proper immediate care. Had not someone knowledgeable like Marcy been there Brodie would probably not have lived.

* * *

Jeffery Chung was one year older than Brodie. While Brodie was a self-described “desert rat” growing up in Tucson, Arizona, Chung had grown up in Honolulu and attended twelve years at the Iolani School before entering Stanford.

Lockard had entered Stanford as an English major, but then realized he might have more luck in the job market by taking math and computer science courses. Chung, on the other hand, pursued an intensive pre-med track heavy on chemistry and biology. Both Chung and Lockard joined the Stanford gym team as freshmen in the fall of 1977.

But before Chung moved to California, during the final months of his senior year at Iolani, he and some friends heard about a cool computer named PLATO, located over in a lab at the University of Hawaii. They had no affiliation with the university; they were simply drawn, like moths to flame, to the system like so many others had been.

Inside a campus building were four PLATO IV terminals with futuristic displays sporting a distinctive Orange Glow. Chung remembers watching as others played games that he would learn were called Empire and Airfight. He was instantly hooked. He was soon sneaking out of his house each night, dashing over to the building, and playing online often until dawn.

Arriving at Stanford, he’d befriended Brodie and told him about PLATO and its incredible games back in Hawaii. “I was thinking, wouldn’t that be a great company, a business idea, to have networked gaming?” he says. “There was no Internet or anything like that, so I didn’t know how that was going to happen. I just imagined all these people calling in on phone lines, over modems, to play against each other.”

Months before his accident, Lockard had gone home to Tucson for the summer. Chung’s frequent PLATO stories had gotten him curious about the system, which was unavailable on the Stanford campus. Brodie’s father was a professor of architecture at the University of Arizona, which, unlike Stanford, had embraced PLATO. Professor Lockard planned to use PLATO in his architectural drawing class, but needed a programmer to create the lesson. Brodie, who had just taken his first programming classes at Stanford, got the job, and over the summer created a tutorial lesson, which introduced the concept of “spatial edges.”

By the time Brodie got back to Stanford for his junior year, he was hooked on PLATO. He’d been on it all summer, gaining author privileges and becoming part of the PLATO culture. “I thought PLATO was one of the coolest things I had ever seen,” Brodie says. Brodie had seen the future but now he was back in the past. He’d lost access. He wanted a terminal in his dorm room. Could he rent one? He contacted CDC and spoke to a sales rep named Cindy Poulos. The costs for leasing a terminal and phone line were astronomical. He might as well have asked to rent an exotic sports car. His hopes for PLATO were dashed, but his interest never left.

And then in December, the accident. He woke up in a hospital and began a long rehabilitation, including learning to breathe with an artificial breathing apparatus. He lay there with nothing to do. Jeff Chung would visit and they talked about PLATO and how Brodie dreamed of being productive again if only he had access. He asked his father if it was possible to get PLATO at the hospital. Maybe they would cut Brodie a break? He probably would never walk or move his arms or legs again, which meant no typing at a keyboard, but he still could think, he still had ambitions, he was still burning with ideas. On PLATO his disabilities would not matter. PLATO was a meeting of minds, pure and simple, and Brodie’s mind was fine.

His father reached out to Cindy Poulos. She was so moved by Brodie’s tragedy, she made a special trip to visit him at the hospital. Then, a surprise. “She brought her personal terminal from home for me to use in a hospital,” says Brodie. “It was amazing.”

During Brodie’s long hospital stay, well into the summer of 1980, part of his rehabilitation included learning how to use a typewriter with a mouth stick. Connected to one end of the long dowel is a rubbery grip like a mouth guard, which the user bites down and then, as he moves his neck and head up, down, and around, he positions the other end of the stick to tap any desired key on the keyboard. It was awkward, but by the time Poulos’s PLATO terminal had arrived, he’d mastered the mouth stick.

He had also taken up an interest in a board game that one of the hospital staff introduced him to and that they would play every now and then: an old Chinese tile game called Mah-Jongg. There are many different versions of the game, with different rules and number of pieces. The version Brodie played consisted of 144 tiles, each tile having a certain symbol or number signifying which class or group it belonged to. The goal is to match one tile with another identical one, and remove them from the formation. To win, remove all the tile pairs. But it’s not easy. Many tiles are placed on top of others, in layers, and there are tricky rules about which tiles you can remove and which ones you can’t until others have been removed first.

Mah-Jongg is played in numerous ways, sometimes with four people, sometimes like solitaire. Brodie learned about a tile layout called “The Turtle,” which involved placing tiles in such a way that a very primitive “turtle” was formed, the “back” of which, in the center, was the thickest, with several layers of tiles. Brodie liked the game and, once he got Poulos’s terminal, he thought about programming a PLATO version of the game.

PLATO’s 512 x 512 graphics and touch screen were ideal. The screen resolution was high enough to provide a crisp rendering of the 144-tile “turtle” layout, and the tiles could be big enough that they could be touched. It was as if PLATO were intentionally designed just for Mah-Jongg.

But how to represent layers of tiles? After all, the game requires some tiles to be laid on top of others, as in the board game. On the PLATO screen, with an essentially 2D top-down view, how would a player notice that some tiles were on top of others? Lockard’s solution: thicken the sides—bevel the edges—of particular tiles. The higher up the tile layer, the thicker the border. The overall design not only worked, but produced perhaps the most striking, beautiful game display ever created on PLATO. To this day, it evokes wonder from people who view it for the first time, and sometimes, for the thousandth time. What made his design even more striking was the painstaking detail of the calligraphy and numbers on each tile. On an original PLATO IV terminal, the effect is a sublime orange vision. The thick borders of the higher layers of tiles made the center region of the screen glow like embers of a fire. He pushed the envelope on PLATO in ways nobody else had thought of, taking PLATO as far as he possibly could.

Incredibly, over months, he built the entire thing one tap at a time with his mouth stick.

To understand what a monumental achievement this was, consider that the 144 tiles each had different works of art on them, and each of those drawings, icons, Chinese calligraphic symbols, and numbers and letters was copied from the tile designs he’d seen in the hospital’s board game, one by one, using PLATO’s graphical character set editor. It took weeks just to create those graphics. He also wrote all of the code for the game with the mouth stick.

The game monitored your every move. “Touch a tile,” the game would say. When you touched a tile, it told you to now find a matching tile and touch it. The program instantly evaluated whether the two tiles were indeed legal by the rules of the game, and if so, the two tiles disappeared, bringing you one step closer to winning. However, the game was quick to identify a tile that was not “free,” meaning it was somehow blocked. What might feel like an easy, quick game could turn into a half hour, an hour, or more, the last thirty or forty tiles seemingly unmatchable. This is where the game’s addictiveness revealed itself: just when all appeared lost, players drunk on the gambler’s fallacy—I’ll figure it out this time—found a surge of motivation and then, having discovered all was indeed lost, rather than quit, they’d load a new game and start all over again.

If you ever managed to remove all the tiles, the screen would erase and in large letters at the top would appear CONGRATULATIONS! and below, YOU WIN!, but neither of those were what caught your eye. In between the two headlines lay Brodie’s pièce de résistance: a sigil-like drawing of a particularly scary Chinese dragon. Thanks to the slow phone lines of the day, it took about twelve seconds for the terminal to draw the dragon with its bug-eyed, berserk face, long tongue jutting out from an open toothy jaw, jagged-edge claws on four feet, and long arching back and tail, but the delay didn’t matter. It was a rare moment, it was the fireworks earned through an achievement that might have taken a long time to reach, but it was worth it all just to watch the great, mad, bug-eyed beast come to life on the screen.

In one way—reminiscent of the architecture lesson he’d coded back in Arizona—the dragon was that “enemy” that appeared behind the “edges” of the Mah-Jongg tiles. But in Mah-Jongg, when you encountered the dragon it meant victory.

But in another way, this was the monster that lay beneath the crash pit that had so changed his life back in a Stanford gymnasium. He had found a way to conquer that monster, and through the game he gave the world a way to conquer it as well.

# # #

Excerpted from the book THE FRIENDLY ORANGE GLOW by Brian Dear. Copyright © 2017 by Brian Dear. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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