[mailhist-discuss] PLATO's personal notes for the timeline

Brian Dear brian at platohistory.org
Fri Sep 18 08:18:16 PDT 2015

Hi all,

Joining late, I know, but better late than never.  Just so this is on the record:

I didn’t see any mention of the PLATO system on the Email History Timeline [1] so here are some details.

In August 1973, Dave Woolley, an undergrad at CERL, the Computer-based Education Research Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, completed a summer project to build what he called Notes, a conferencing system for PLATO.  It was released to users on August 7th, and would expand and be modified for many years afterwards.  It provided a linear, message-followed-by-responses model of discussion forums like we see today.

Then on August 10th, 1974, after several months of work, Kim Mast, another undergrad working at CERL, created “Personal Notes,” an email system based on Notes, but enabling a user to send private messages to another user, and then have that other user send a reply back if so wished.  Widely known as “pnotes” (pronounced “P-notes”), the feature was an overnight success and wildly popular as you can imagine.

A major enhancement to pnotes was intersystem pnotes. This enabled a user to email a PLATO user not only on the CERL PLATO system, but on any of the Control Data PLATO systems around the world that shared the network.

Eventually CERL also modified Notes (now called Group Notes to distinguish it from Personal Notes) to support inter-system communication, so it was possible to create message forums on any subject and then link them together with identical forums on other PLATO systems and form a network-wide virtual forum, where messages and replies were all synced together automatically on each respective system.

Finally, years later (late 80s, maybe very early 90s), Personal Notes was enhanced so you could send and receive Internet email directly from the program.  PLATO (and its later generation NovaNET) accounts (called “signons") were reachable by Internet users using a special RFC-822-compliant formatting of the signon string.

FYI, Ray Ozzie worked at CERL during the 70s and in 1984 he and two other former CERL undergrads, Len Kawell and Tim Halvorsen, formed Iris Associates, a software development boutique in Boston, funded by Mitch Kapor of Lotus fame. Iris worked for a number of years on a stealth project called Notes, named after PLATO Notes.  Eventually they licensed it to Lotus and the rest is history.

Happy to answer any questions about PLATO’s history of email, which, like everything with PLATO, happened in a kind of "parallel universe" with little evolutionarily in common with ARPANET, TCP/IP, etc.

- Brian

p.s. I’m writing a book on the history of PLATO and you can learn more about it here [2]

Brian Dear
PLATO History Project
Santa Fe, NM 
brian at platohistory.org

[1] http://emailhistory.org/Email-Timeline.html
[2] http://friendlyorangeglow.com

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