Plato and the Dormouse

During my summer vacation I read John Markoff’s book “What the
Dormouse Said.” 1 I assume it was the publisher that insisted on
adding the subtitle “How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the
Personal Computer Industry”; it does give you an idea what the book is
about, but actually it’s somewhat misleading.

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Markoff describes the prehistory of personal computing—in particular
the work of Doug Engelbart and Alan Kay—from a different angle: his
focus is on the social environment in the San Francisco Bay Area in
the 1960s and early 1970s and the personal relationships and
connections. If these names tell you something, the book is a
gripping read and gives fascinating insights into the social
background of their more widely known technical visions and
achievements.

However, Markoff doesn’t really write about the personal computer
industry, as his account ends with the founding of the Homebrew
Computer Club (the rest is history, as they say), and while some
companies—Apple and Atari, for example—certainly had roots in the
counterculture, I find it debatable whether the industry was
“shaped” by the counterculture. I would argue Microsoft wasn’t. More
importantly, one of the interesting aspects in the history of personal
computers is the marked discontinuity between the research done by
Engelbart at SRI and Kay at Xerox PARC on one side and the development
of personal computers on the other side. Markoff is clearly aware of
this and explicitly points it out. In short, only very few
developments from NLS were transferred to the Alto, and very few
developments from the Alto transferred to PCs. In fact, one could
argue that the most significant aspects from NLS (it’s not the mouse)
and the Alto (it’s not the GUI) are still not available on modern PCs.

I don’t want to go into more details here but rather want to point out
another fascinating discontinuity, which is not explicitly mentioned
by Markoff. Markoff mentions that in the summer of 1968, Alan Kay
(then a graduate student at the University of Utah) did a campus tour
at the University of Illinois:

“There on a laboratory bench, he discovered a one-inch lump of glass
and neon gas that was capable of lighting up different tiny spots on
command. It was a flat-panel display, and it left Kay absolutely
dumbfounded. It was instantly obvious that not only would it be
possible to make a computer personal, but that the computer could be
portable as well. Kay spent the next several hours with the other
graduate students calculating whether or not it would be possible to
place a 512-by-512-pixel flat-panel display directly on the Flex
computer. They decided that, according to Moore’s Law, it wouldn’t be
possible until the late seventies or early eighties—an impossibly long
time into the future.” (p. 146)

The plasma display Kay saw at the University of Illinois was developed
at the Computer-Based Education Research Laboratory (CERL), which most
notably developed the PLATO system, a forerunner of today’s e-learning
platforms—but again, not in a direct line. Even though the work on
PLATO was groundbreaking, it is now largely forgotten. I give a very
brief outline of PLATO in Section 2.2.2 of my dissertation. The CERL
researchers were not concerned with personal computers per se, but
nevertheless introduced concepts such as online forums and message
boards, online testing, e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging, remote
screen sharing, and multi-player online games. The 8080-based PLATO V
terminals featured plasma displays with infrared touch panels and
local processing capabilities, so that they were able to execute
programs downloaded from the host computer—this is actually very
similar to how today’s Web browsers execute JavaScript code downloaded
from Web servers. For audio output, a synthesizer could be connected
to the terminal, which was an innovation in itself.

However, there’s no direct line from PLATO to modern systems, and even
though Kay was apparently impressed by the plasma display developed at
CERL, I’m not aware of direct influences from PLATO on Kay’s later
work at PARC. [Kay was interested in teaching and learning, but if he
took note of PLATO, I’d assume that he would have rejected it due to
its roots in programmed instruction; but this would be interesting to
check.]

What about the graduate students’ projection? The patent for the
plasma display was filed in December 1966; the report on the PLATO V
terminal, which used the plasma display, was released in April 1978.
The estimation was thus spot on.

Footnotes:

1

John Markoff: What the Dormouse Said. How the Sixties Counterculture
Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. New York: Penguin, 2005.


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