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Re: Elevator hacks, PLATO, Dept of Ed...

In article <E8CA902C9FB8D1119ACE0000F81F49671CCD8C@alfexc8.alf.dec.com> ,
    Bob Mader <Bob.Mader@digital.com>  writes:
> Speaking of strange computers in Willard Hall, I wonder how many of you
> remember the PLATO system. [...]

PLATO was the first computer I ever used.  My sister (13 years older
than I was at the time, which would make her 25 while I was 12) was
taking a biomechanics class at the University which involved some
computer-based quizzes through PLATO.  She brought me down to Willard
Hall one day and I used the PLATO system for its educational games
(they had the equivalent of a demo/demo account in those days... such
trust!).  The little animations were amusing for a time, but there's
only so many times you can play the "add it up race" before it gets

At any rate, I learned there were other PLATO classrooms, most notably
in Smith Hall in the basement computer lab area.  So I was over there
noodling around on the PLATO systems and noticed that there were these
other computer terminals in the adjacent room.  (One thing PLATO
definately did right was the ergnomics of their computer rooms.
Carpeted floors.  Cushioned chairs.  No overhead flourescent lighting!)

The adjacent room was full of a huge array of LA36 printing terminals,
and a few glass ttys.  You walked up to the LA36 pressed RETURN a
couple of times and it spit out a crude menu to allow you to select
which computer you wanted.  (Does anyone else remember "RETURN 4
RETURN"?)  I remember the following systems on the menu:

    an HP2000 running some HP operating system that I don't even
    think had a name.

    a PDP-11/70, originally running RSTS that switched to unix a short
    time later (a year or two I guess)

    a DEC-20, running TOPS-20 I think?

    a Burroughs B6700, can't remember the name of the O/S.  Later I
    think they upgraded to a B7700.

Well it didn't take much experimenting to learn that one could sign
onto almost any of these systems with a demo/demo account.  (Was this
standard practice at the time?  I think RSTS shipped with a demo/demo
account and even today, SGI systems are pretty darn unsecure since
they ship with such a demo account with no password!).

Once on one of these machines, I discovered that they too had their
share of game programs, but they didn't even pretend to be educational
in nature.  I played the games for a time, but quickly became bored
with them.  What was more interesting was a set of programs on the
HP2000 computer.

The HP2000, like RSTS, ran a BASIC interpreter and had a workspace
into which you loaded programs.  Most of the programs could be LISTed
from the workspace after running them (or you could issue a separate
command to just load them into your workspace).  Wow, here was all
this magic stuff that seemed pretty cool and interesting.  I stumbled
upon the "tutor" programs in the HP's library.  It was a series of 25
separate programs that taught you how to program the machine in basic!
TUT01 through TUT25 they were called.

Well that was pretty cool.  I ran the TUT programs all the way from 01
through 25 and taught myself BASIC!  It was a crude dialect of basic;
I don't believe it allowed more than one statement on a line and
variables were restricted to the classic letter + optional digit.  It
did have strings, but didn't distinguish between integer variables and
real variables like BASIC-PLUS.  I remember being VERY impressed by
the one lesson that covered the idea of drawing graphs of functions by
plotting the position of an asterisk width-wise on a line, with
successive lines plotting out the function, one point at a time.  The
example program plotted a sine wave and how this function managed to
make a wave-like shape as the argument increased gave me serious brain
cramps!  (Remember, I was only 12, I hadn't had algebra yet, much less

At this point, I of course had told all my friends (it was summer
time) about these computers in the basement of Smith Hall where you
could login as demo/demo and play cool games.  (I think 'pong' had
just come out around that time as the first video game.)  But since I
had tired of the games (they seemed pretty trivial and didn't require
much skill or thought) and was more interested in how the games
worked, I didn't really pay much attention to what my friends were

Well, all these kids clustering around decwriters in the basement of
Smith Hall soon attracted the attention of the Authorities.  After
all, they OBVIOUSLY weren't students at the University being only
young teenagers.  Plus my friends weren't exactly caring of the
equipment (spilled sodas, cookie crumbs in the keyboards, etc.) and
I don't think they were considerate of other people who were there
trying to use the computers for "real work".  But, it was the summer
time and there wasn't any significant number of people around doing
real work anyway.  This all changed when the next semester started and
the students and faculty started coming to Smith to use the machines
for their classwork, etc.

Somewhere around this time I had met both Bob Mader and Chris Brown.
I remember that the decwriters were all arranged in little groups of 4
at the corners of a table on which you could set your notebooks,
papers, etc.  Chris, Bob and I were working at one such cluster near
the back corner of the room.  I remember this quite distinctly.  I was
sitting with my back to the room, facing the wall and Chris and Bob
were at the two decwriters opposite, facing me and the rest of the
room.  I was quietly computing away -- I think I was trying to
understand the star trek game, but since it used trig functions all
over the place it was giving me brain cramps.

So I'm sitting there, trying to grok this program and all of a sudden
there is a commotion in the room behind me (my friends were there
playing games) and Bob and Chris immediately look over and Bob says
to me "don't turn around, just keep working!".  Well I didn't know
what was going on, but from the look on their faces, I figured it
would be advantageous to do as they say.  What was happening behind me
is that the "kid usage" issue had come to a head with the computing
center staff and they had called in the troops!

Yes, security guards were there en masse to escort out anyone who was
under the age of 18 from the computer lab.  They also put up signs
that literally said "This area prohibited to anyone under 18 years of
age"!!  Well that was going to put a damper on my computer usage for
sure, because I would have had to wait another 5 years before I could
even get in the room without breaking the rules.

Chris and Bob recognized that I wasn't doing the same things as the
other kids, and got me an appointment with Bob Schaeffer(sp?), who
was a staff person at the computer center.  (Does anyone know what
happened to Bob?)  After a talk with Bob S., he issued me my first
security pass, the magic slip of yellow paper that entitled me to be
in the room despite the signs prominently posted on every wall in the
lab.  I remember once being kicked out of the room despite my security
pass after that, but for the most part it allowed me to compute

That was the beginning of my computing experience... through Bob and
Chris, I was first exposed to unix and a shortwhile later DELTA.  I
think it was the very next summer that I started doing computing stuff
over at DELTA and had given up on the HP2000.  I much preferred
BASIC-PLUS to the primitive BASIC on the HP machine; the Burroughs
machine didn't have anything interesting to me, and I think they
eventually closed off the demo accounts.  The DEC-20 machine also
didn't have anything of interest, and the PDP-11/70 had moved to Unix
and had removed its free access along the way as well I think.
                                               Rich Thomson