AE3's "Past, Present & Future" event features PLATO inventor


Rick Kubetz, Engineering Communications Office

Donald L. Bitzer, Professor Emeritus, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering & Co-Inventor of PLATO, will be the featured speaker at a special event, “Engineering Education @Illinois: Past, Present & Future!” The free event, sponsored by the Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education (AE3), will take place on Wednesday, October 8, 4:00 p.m., 1005 Beckman Institute (405 N. Mathews Avenue, Urbana).

Fifty-two years ago, College of Engineering Dean William L. Everitt wrote a visionary essay about educating engineers “in the future.” His future was 2012. His essay asserted that educating engineers means fostering innovative minds—the ability to create and navigate a world that, at any given time, we are only beginning to imagine. Calling for a broad-based education and training for engineers, his futurist vision included the use of “teaching machines” that would present lectures, interact directly with students, test their knowledge acquisition, and report the results of training:

“Every student and practicing engineer will have access to adequate computers and information storage. Moderate capacity computers will be miniaturized and reduced in cost, so that each individual will have his own, as he now has his slide rule. As his needs arise, he will have ready access, through wire or radio communication channels, to computer and memory systems of any required complexity. Training of all engineering in the use of computer will be extensive.”   
                                                                                                                - William L. Everitt, in Proceedings of the IRE (1962)

Donald Bitzer and his plasma monitor
Donald Bitzer and his plasma monitor
His comments at the time reflected work already underway at the University of Illinois. Ideas about “teaching machines” had been swirling around since the 1930s, but in 1959, leaders at the Control Systems Laboratory, took up the challenge, hiring a newly minted electrical engineering PhD named Donald Bitzer (BS, 1955, MS 1956, PhD, 1960) to head the project. Along with his colleagues, Bitzer pioneered computer-assisted education and made the PLATO system known worldwide.

“We started slowly with only three of us working on the project which eventually grew to more than 100 people,” Bitzer recalled. “It took the support of Dean Everitt and the foresight of CSL Director Daniel Alpert to help make this possible. 

“Illinois was the perfect place to accomplish such an interdisciplinary project. The technology for computers, communications, and input-output to the student did not exist and had to be invented and constructed from scratch. The software did not exist either.”

As they set about developing a new teaching machine, Bitzer and his colleagues were not necessarily thinking about changing the higher education.

“We were concerned about what was happening in our primary and secondary schools—large, intercity schools where close to 50% of the students were coming out functionally illiterate,” he said. “We realized that we would have to create hardware that could deliver a large variety of courseware that the students would be comfortable with. We also realized that the software would have to support the students’ learning needs and the teachers’ needs (the ability for a teacher to easily write new courseware and develop new teaching strategies) without them being computer experts.

PLATO 'touch-screen' desktop unit (1970s)
PLATO 'touch-screen' desktop unit (1970s)
“The first courses taught on PLATO were (lessons in polygons and lessons in French. With only 16 keys to work with, it was quite a task. We used two light sources—ultraviolet, and white—with two labels on the keys. The light was controlled by the computer, illuminating the correct set of keys as needed.”

Bitzer realized early in PLATO’s development that a display with memory was needed to make the system successful. In 1964, he and his colleagues—ECE alumni H. Gene Slottow and Robert Willson—devised an electronic display in which each pixel on the screen glowed like a little neon sign. Both a display and a storage device, the plasma monitor accepted digital information directly from the computer and stored it on the panel, solving the scalability problem that plagued the use of cathode ray tubes in computer display monitors.

“One of the interesting publications was the first public presentation given at San Francisco in 1966 to the 1966 AFIPS Conference,” Bitzer related. “It is interesting to read what Gene Slottow and I had to say about the future of the Plasma Display Panel.”

“Admittedly, the specific needs of a teaching system emphasize the importance of some properties of a display, and are less demanding of others. Nevertheless, we believe that these needs are similar to the large systems being developed for banks, airline reservations control, and for corporate and university administration. In all of these systems the resolution requirements are at most those met by standard television, information rates are low, and low display cost is imperative.” (Proceedings Volume 29 1966 Fall Joint Computer Conference, Nov.7-10, pages 541-547).

Bitzer’s inventions enabled the development of large-screen flat-panel televisions of modern TV and DVD technologies. The additional invention of the plasma display panel and its impact on TV and DVD technologies earned Bitzer and his colleagues an Emmy Award (in Scientific and Technology) from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2002.

By 1980, there were 7,000 hours of instructional material in more than 150 subject areas on the PLATO IV system. Several thousand terminals were located around the globe, including Australia, Belgium, France, Israel, Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Canada, and South Africa.

Looking back, how does Bitzer think PLATO and its related technologies will be remembered?

“Many people contributed to the software and hardware over the years. It reflected and met many of the educational needs, then and now. Thousands of students studied chemistry, physics, electrical circuit designs as well and many non-engineering courses on PLATO. The commercial system, NovaNet, still is used today.

In 2010, Don Bitzer was inducted into the College of Engineering Hall of Fame. (l to r) U of I President Stanley Ikenberry, Bitzer, Chancellor Robert Easter, and Dean Ilesanmi Adesida.
In 2010, Don Bitzer was inducted into the College of Engineering Hall of Fame. (l to r) U of I President Stanley Ikenberry, Bitzer, Chancellor Robert Easter, and Dean Ilesanmi Adesida.
For many years, Bitzer was one of the most distinguished faculty members in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Illinois. He has received numerous awards, including election to the National Academy of Engineering (1974), an honorary PhD from MacMurray College (1985), and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (2013).

He received the College of Engineering Distinguished Alumni Award (2004), and he was a member of the inaugural Hall of Fame class (2010). Bitzer joined the faculty at North Carolina State in 1989, where he is a Distinguished University Research Professor of Computer Science.

Editor's note: To mark 20 years of supporting excellence and innovation in engineering education, the Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education (AE3) is sponsoring "Engineering Education @ Illinois: Past, Present & Future!" Dean Andreas Cangellaris and Professor Rohit Bhargava will also speak about the legacy of creativity, leadership and innovation in Engineering at Illinois. Reception to follow in the Beckman Atrium.

Feature photo courtesy of North Carolina State University.