Don Bitzer

2022 Fellow

For pioneering online education and communities with PLATO and co-inventing the plasma display

When networks like the Internet were still a research lab curiosity, Don Bitzer's multiuser PLATO system served as a dress rehearsal for what we do on those networks today – learn, teach, collaborate, chat, mail, play games, argue, and more. PLATO's courseware language and touchscreen, multimedia terminals previewed features of decades hence.  PLATO was a postcard from the future of online communities, and its example would help make that future real. 

Donald L. Bitzer was born January 1, 1934 and is an American electrical engineer and computer scientist. He is co-inventor of the flat-panel plasma display and the "father of PLATO,” the world’s earliest time-shared, computer-based education system and home to one of the world’s most pioneering online communities.

Bitzer studied electrical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, obtaining a PhD there in 1960. Following graduation, Bitzer joined the UIUC faculty where he learned of efforts to bring lessons to students over a closed-circuit television network. While a committee of engineers, psychologists, and educators were unable to agree on a single solution at the time, Bitzer wrote up a proposal within one week, got it approved, and immediately started developing his PLATO system for the university’s groundbreaking ILLIAC I computer --- the first electronic digital stored program computer built by a university. (PLATO stands for Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations).

Bitzer modified the ILLIAC I to work with a television output and started to program into the giant vacuum tube machine the first online courses. Bitzer’s initial solution comprised a graphical TV output, a keyboard input system, and an interactive learning simulation that allowed ILLIAC to ask questions and solicit an answer from the student. PLATO was among the first timesharing systems of any kind, contemporaneous with the CTSS system at MIT

The first versions of PLATO ran directly off TV signals generated by ILLIAC I.  To get PLATO courses into schools, however, a much less costly way to distribute the course images and text to remote students was required. In solving this problem, Bitzer and his two colleagues, fellow professor Gene Slottow and grad student Robert Wilson, invented the flat-panel display.

This remarkable accomplishment was decades ahead of its time and not only functioned as an excellent display device but, in a stroke of real genius, the team found a way to make the picture elements (pixels) a form of storage as well. This saved thousands of dollars in video memory, making a graphical display affordable at a time when others were research lab curiosities. For a pointing device, they added an overlay that made these perhaps the first widely used touch screens.

To expand multimedia for courses, later PLATO terminals incorporated microfilm projector that could combine detailed images with computer text on the screen, and some used an attached magnetic audio disk for language and music instruction.

By the early 1980s, PLATO supported thousands of student terminals worldwide, running on multiple different mainframe computers. Many modern concepts in multi-user computing were developed for or matured under PLATO -- including forums, message boards, online testing, email, chat rooms, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, multimedia, and multiplayer video games.

In 1989, Bitzer left Illinois to join the faculty of North Carolina State University where he is currently Distinguished University Research Professor of Computer Science. Bitzer is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, an IEEE Fellow, and a 2002 Emmy Award winner for his co-invention of the flat-panel plasma display.


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