PLATO: From Computer-Based
Education to Corporate Social Responsibility
Elisabeth Van Meer
University of Minnesota
Date published: 5 November 2003
Abstract: This article will analyze Control Data Corporation
co-founder William C. Norris vision for the PLATO system
of computer-based education (CBE). It will begin by relating
the history of PLATO prior to Norris arrival on the
educational scene. The second part will discuss how Norris
promoted PLATO from 1976 onward. On the basis of Norris
public lectures during this time, it will be argued that PLATO
was expected to become not just CDCs most profitable
investment, but also a valued corporate solution to a set
of urgent social problems. More specifically, we will see
how in Norris vision PLATO changed from being a straightforward
application in CBE to becoming the cornerstone of CDCs
policy of corporate social responsibility.
Keywords: Control Data Corporation, PLATO
(Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operation), computer-based
education, corporate social responsibility, Control Systems
Laboratory (University of Illinois)
II. The Emergence of Computer-Based
III. PLATOs Origins
IV. Control Datas Involvement
in PLATOs Development
Public Lectures on PLATO
VI. PLATO, Profitability,
and Social Responsibility
VII. The End of PLATO?
would be the next big thing after the mainframe computer?
Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we would say the
personal computer, and then the Internet.
But William C. Norris, co-founder, president, and CEO of Control
Data Corporation (CDC)one of the leading mainframe manufacturershad
a different answer: Between 1976 and 1986 the future seemed
to be governed by PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching
This article will analyze Norris vision for the PLATO
system of computer-based education (CBE). It will start out
by relating the history of PLATO prior to Norris arrival
on the educational scene. The idea of computer-based education
first emerged in the late 1950s. In the 1960s, Donald L. Bitzer
originated the PLATO system. Not until 1976 did Norris and
CDC gain full commercial control over the production and sales
of PLATO. [end of page 1]
The second part of this paper will discuss how Norris promoted
PLATO from 1976 onward. On the basis of Norris public
lectures during this time, it will be argued that PLATO was
expected to become not just CDCs most profitable investment,
but also a valued corporate solution to a set of urgent social
problems. More specifically, we will see how in Norris
vision, PLATO changed from being a straightforward application
in CBE, to becoming the cornerstone of CDCs policy of
corporate social responsibility.
Yet, it was precisely this social vision for PLATO that many
journalists, investors, and human rights activists would not
let go uncriticized.
Emergence of Computer-Based Education
In the late 1950s, a variety of factors facilitated the birth
of research into computer-based education in the United States.
Due to increasing enrollment figures, educational institutions
faced financial pressures to explore alternative means of
education. Between 1950 and 1975, enrollments doubled from
about 31 million to 60 million students, with the costs of
their education growing exponentially from $9 million to over
Early developers of computer-based education (CBE) referred
to these kinds of figures in order to convince administrators
that computers would save costs, lift the pressure of finding
additional qualified teachers, and provide better education.
Computer-based education was also a product of the political
climate of the 1950s. Within the military, different projects
had explored the possibility of automatic teaching
of personnel since the early 1950s. This research received
a big boost when in 1957 the Soviet Union surprised the world
with the successful launching of the Sputnik I satellite
into space. President Eisenhower reacted to this Cold War
challenge by making the teaching of science and mathematics
instrumental to regaining American leadership.
Thus, in the mid-1960s, National Science Foundation funds
were assigned to further the cause of computer-based education.
The first conference was held at the University of Pennsylvania
in 1958, sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research
(OSR). This conference was also the first occasion at which
IBM publicly presented its experiments with computer-based
It was against this background that in 1959 Chalmers Sherwin,
a physicist and Associate Director of the Control Systems
Laboratory at the University of Illinois, suggested to William
Everett, Dean of the College of Engineering, the possibility
of using computers for teaching.
Everett recommended that Daniel Alpert, also a physicist and
head of the Control Systems Laboratory, put together a group
of engineers, educators, mathematicians, and psychologists
to examine this matter further. This select group debated
the matter for several weeks, but failed to reach common ground.
Dan Alpert was about to inform Everett of the fruitless outcome,
when he decided at the last minute to mention the problem
to Donald L. Bitzer, a young assistant in the lab.
[end of page 2] Bitzer had obtained a Ph.D. in electrical
engineering at the University of Illinois towards the end
of the Korean War while working in the Control Systems Lab
on military radar technology.
When Alpert approached him, Bitzer claimed he had already
been thinking about ways to use old radar equipment
as part of an interface for teaching with a computer.
In 1960, it was Bitzer who completed the first version of
This was the first computer system designed especially for
general educational use. In designing its teaching logic,
Bitzer had cooperated closely with his colleague, mathematician
Peter Braunfeld. They decided to go against the grain in popular
Rather than following Skinners
approach (which divided up information into elementary bits
for easy retention), Bitzer and Braunfeld adopted a system
first explored by Norman A. Crowder of the Air Force Personnel
Training and Research Center, favoring a branch programming
methodology over drill and practice.
This meant that PLATO incorporated course material into larger
interrelated conceptual packages.
If a student found the material easy or familiar, she could
leapfrog through a course in a minimum of lessons.
Students who needed more time and explanations found themselves
directed back and forth through the total sequence of lessons
until the concept was mastered.
The Bitzer team rapidly created increasingly sophisticated
versions of this general idea. PLATO I, developed in 1960,
accommodated only one student, and ran on the Universitys
ILLIAC computer. It connected a TV display, a specially designed
key-set, a storage device and a slide selector to the computer.
PLATO II, developed in 1961, was the first time-sharing version
and could accommodate two students. PLATO III, developed between
1963 and 1966, became the first computer-based education system
to serve a substantial communitynow handling twenty
Compared with earlier versions, PLATO III also made gains
in educational flexibility. This was achieved with the new
TUTOR language. The brainchild of Paul Tenczar, TUTOR made
it possible for regular teachers to write their own courses.
Thanks to TUTOR the range of classes that PLATO incorporated
increased. PLATO III offered algebra, anatomy, psychology,
pharmacology, languages, and life sciences.
With all these features in place, PLATO III became the first
version to be used in a classroom setting. Connections were
set up for PLATO III to serve not only the University of Illinois,
but also a local nursing school, a community college, and
an elementary school.
By 1970, 720 hours of course software had been developed for
PLATO III covering all these different levels of education.
PLATO III ran on a refurbished CDC 1604 computer. William
Norris had given this computer to Bitzer and his colleagues
in 1963 for use rent-free. As head of Control Data Corporation,
Norris had been kept informed of the pioneering developments
in computer-based education at Illinois through his sales
agent Harold Brooke.
[end of page 3] (Brooke had visited the campus of Illinois
regularly since 1960, the year in which he had sold the Control
Science Laboratory its first CDC 1604).
The donation of this later CDC 1604 specifically to
the group working on PLATO marked the beginning of Norris
personal involvement with CBE.
In 1967, the University of Illinois set Bitzers team
up in a separate laboratory, the Computer-based Education
Research Laboratory (CERL), to continue PLATO research that
was funded by a National Science Foundation grant.
Until 1966, PLATO I, II, and III had been financed out of
the general support that the Coordinated Science laboratory
received from the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
But for the development of PLATO IV, Bitzer received his own
NSF funding. This allowed Bitzer to set up CERL for the development
of a PLATO system that, according to the NSFs stipulations,
was to accommodate at least 300 terminals.
In line with these requirements, the new PLATO IV was ready
to be put into operation by 1972.
It subsequently became the first version to have an impact
beyond the immediate Illinois environment. In 1975 PLATO IV
served 146 locations from the University of Illinois (26 on
campus), 10 elementary schools, 3 high schools, 6 community
colleges, 22 government-related installations, 31 medical
sites, 32 colleges and universities and 16 at other off campus
Besides running on increasingly powerful computers, including
the CDC 6000 and the CYBER series, PLATO IV made use of a
new invention, the plasma display panel. This flat, gas-filled
panel housed transparent electrodes, onto which images could
The plasma panel also made possible a touch screen
option; PLATO could receive information over regular telephone
lines, and it had an inherent storage capacity for both computer
and student generated images and text.
With these new technological features in place, the developers
of PLATO claimed that they had achieved an educational system
that was cost-effective, and that in many ways outperformed
learning in a classical classroom setting. Bitzer and his
colleagues presented PLATO to the press as offering individualized
instruction in a wide array of courses or subject-material
PLATO could accommodate graphics, animation, simulation, and
text-based instruction. Furthermore, behind her individual
terminal, every student had the PLATO teacher
all to herself. Bitzer and his colleagues claimed that PLATO
was infinitely patient, gave the student immediate feedback,
and let her go through a course at her own pace. Moreover,
the system kept traces of all the students interactions
and answers. Bitzer therefore argued that PLATO offered the
teacher the ability to gain detailed insight into each students
progress. Finally, PLATO was unique in that it allowed student
and teacher, indeed anybody on the PLATO network, to communicate
online. This gave students the opportunity to discuss any
issue with their peers or their teachers immediately while
working in PLATO.
[end of page 4]
Datas Involvement in PLATO Development
With PLATO reaching the final stages of development, its
relationship to Control Data Corporation was also about to
take a new turn in the 1970s. In the 1960s, Norris had provided
Bitzers research group with CDC hardware, but over time
his company became increasingly involved with preparing PLATO
for the commercial market.
In 1971, the company began writing and modifying PLATO courseware
in a newly established CDC Educational Department.
In 1974, the company set up an independent PLATO IV system
on its own premises.
In 1976 Norris Control Data officially acquired the
rights to all aspects of the PLATO system from the
University of Illinois.
CDC then immediately put the system out on the market, offering
customers the option of purchasing a CDC mainframe with PLATO
courseware in full, of acquiring only a set of terminals with
which to connect to the companys main computer, or of
paying for only a single PLATO course at one of the many Control
Data Institutes and CCC Learning Centers that the company,
prior to PLATO, had built around the country and abroad.
Moreover, at the official press conference organized to announce
the acquisition, the company informed the world that by
1985 PLATO-related revenue could account for 50 percent of
CDC, a firm that had started out as a mainframe producer in
the late 1950s specializing in developing powerful computers
for scientific markets, by the late 1960s had diversified
its activities quite substantially. In 1968, it took over
Commercial Credit Company (CCC). This acquisition brought
CDC into data services and the individual customer and small
business market (offering among others accounts receivable,
insurance, finance, leasing, credit card, and repatriation
CDC had also already built its reputation for risk-taking
behavior and fluctuating profit levels (including some losses),
and had set out on a path of corporate social responsibility.
For example, the same year that CDC acquired CCC, the company
built its first production site in a designated poverty
area in its hometown of Minneapolis. However, through
its acquisition of PLATO, CDC took its risk-taking, socially
interested, corporate strategy to a much more serious level.
And of course, computer-based education in itself was an entirely
new field for CDC to become involved in.
Indeed, I would argue that CDCs acquisition of PLATO
had at least three important consequences for the company.
First, it meant that, in the 1970s, Control Data would become
a main player in the drive to computerize education.
The company put enormous effort, and especially investment
capital, into the development of PLATO courseware. CDC also
launched important advertisement campaigns, and allowed ingenuous
financing constructions to put PLATO at strategic places in
the market. Secondly, over the course of Norris reign,
Control Data itself would also become thoroughly PLATO-ized.
All new employees were trained with PLATO to prepare them
for their jobs, and current employees were strongly encouraged
to continue using PLATO courseware to increase their human
[end of page 5] Even investors,
in particular small private stockholders, were encouraged
to use PLATO to keep themselves informed of business policy
and performance. Thirdly, PLATO became the new linchpin of
the companys strategy of corporate social responsibility.
Just as PLATO was targeted to meet the need for
better education, new PLATO-type applications were developed
especially with an eye towards fulfilling a perceived social
Public Lectures on PLATO
Each of these aspects of PLATO becomes apparent when we take
a critical look at a series of lectures published by CDC between
1977-1981. In these lectures, William C. Norris set out in
detail his vision for the future. It was a future in which
American business in general, and CDC in particular, solved
societys most pressing problems.
Norris discussed his companys solutions not just for
education, but also for tackling unemployment, rural development,
problems faced by the poor and disabled and many other issues.
The basic idea behind Norris solutions was that societys
ills could best be solved by the companys computer application
systems. The PLATO computer-based education system was the
mainthough not the onlycomponent in Norris
corporate solution for society.
Speaking on June 27, 1979, at the Annual Meeting of the Minnesota
Society of Certified Public Accountants in Bloomington Minnesota,
Norris presented what was at stake:
What we need is a fundamental change in
which business takes the initiative and provides the leadership
for planning and managing the implementation of solutionsin
cooperation with government, labor unions, universities,
churches, and all other major segments of society. The major
problems of our society are massive, and massive resources
are required for their solution. The best approach is to
view them with the strategy that they can be profitable
business opportunities with an appropriate sharing of cost
between business and government. Where the resources for
solving problems are beyond those of a single company, as
most are, they should be pooled through cooperative projects
or joint venture companies.
Control Data adopted such a strategy almost
12 years ago. It has been pursued vigorously and has proven
sound. Examples will be given later, in which profitability
is proving to be as good or better than with traditional
strategies. Unfortunately, most companies are not yet following
a similar approach. Too many businessmen, economists, security
analysts and institutional and individual investors believe
that the business is to maximize short-term profit for stockholders,
and that consideration of social problems detracts from
this and is therefore the governments job.
On an earlier occasion, Norris pointed out in this respect
Most big business dont want to rock
the boat; instead they prefer to keep doing more of the
samemake the cars two inches shorter or two inches
longer; put more fake walnut on the TV set or put new stripes
on tennis shoes. Big business is not disposed to share its
technology and cooperate with small business.
[end of page 6]
Control Data, Norris made clear to his various audiences,
was not that kind of big business. It had put a lot of money
into PLATO$600 million by 1980
and it was doing so because it believed in its long-term
social utility and economic success. The following words delivered
to an audience at the Society for Applied Learning Technology
in Washington, D.C., in July 1976, indicate how committed
Norris was to computer-based education and, secondly, how
computer-based education fit into Control Datas corporate
The steady, steep rise in the cost of educationto
the point of bankrupting one school administration after
anotherhas received only fragmented efforts at solution.
Indeed fragmentation is at the very root of the cost problem
in education, and can be blamed for the mounting quality
complaints as well.
One manifestation is the horrendous duplication
of effort, as each teacher continually reinvents the wheel
in his or her own classroom. The prerogative of each teacher
to decide what is best has resulted in only isolated applications
of advanced technology in education. . . . Teachers are
not solely to blame, because college presidents, boards
of trustees, public school boards, and even communities
all maintain their educational prerogatives and their outdated
But I believe it is increasingly evident
that there is one segment in our society that can cut across
these narrow, autocratic domains: private competitive enterprise.
Corporations must be, and I believe want to be, more concerned
with meeting the needs of society; and the number one need,
after jobs, is higher-quality, more readily available educationat
The most direct and effective way to get
it is for private companies to provide the appropriate technologies,
management, marketing, and leadership to glue together enough
governmental and institutional support to provide a better
alternative. The primary technological alternative is computer-based
education, in a learning center network.
In 1981, Norris claimed that PLATO had already proven
to be both cost and educationally effective in teaching even
young children the most basic academic skills:
PLATO has been proven to be cost-effective
in many fields including vocational training and teaching
basic skillsareas of critical importance to developing
countries and the disadvantaged in our own country. Basic
skills courses cover the range from grades 3 to 8 and courses
are under development for 0-3 grades. Present basic skills
courses have proven to be very effective. On the average,
individuals have advanced an extra grade level in reading
in about twenty-one hours and two grade levels in mathematics
in twenty-five hours of work at the terminal. Vocational
training courses are equally effective and courses in many
subjects are available. Secondary education and adult continuing
education are also beginning to benefit from computer-based
[end of page 7]
A year later Control Data ran an advertisement campaign on
radio and in print media that promoted this message.
The theme of the first part of this campaign was Control
Datas PLATO is Changing How the World Learns.
One of the ads showed a photo of a happy little girl beneath
the slogan: A few months ago Jane could hardly read:
Look at her now!
CDCs local newspaper, The Minneapolis Tribune,
took issue with this claim.
Upon contacting CDC, the paper was told that the advertisement
was not based on a genuine little girl. Spokespeople from
CDC admitted that Jane was merely a profile based on
hundreds of case studies. When journalists further asked
where the report that PLATO successfully taught basic skills
could be found, CDC informed them that their results were
based on the experiences at Knox Elementary School near San
Antonio, Texas. However, their report was not open for publication.
The newspaper, subsequently, undertook its own investigation
at the school where PLATO was used as a remedial tool. Children
at Knox Elementary School who had fallen behind in basic reading
and math used PLATO. All children who used PLATO really enjoyed
it and felt they had made progress, but the newspaper reported
that PLATO provided no lasting benefits.
When the principal of Knox was informed of the results she
was disappointed and answered:
Regardless of the findings,
she added, I still feel PLATO does help the kids.
Maybe its because Ive been in there with the
kids. It seems theyre getting more from the computermore
than we could help them along with. I would still keep PLATO.
Later that year, a new report came out drawn up by the San
Antonio School District. Although this report corroborated
the findings of the Minneapolis Tribune, the reporters
found that students who had taken mathematics on PLATO gained
twice as much [on achievement tests] as in the past.
What happened to these childrens grades after they had
stopped using PLATO was not investigated in this new report.
These findings appear to be typical for PLATO. The first
official evaluation of the PLATO system produced by Educational
Testing Services (ETS) in 1977 already concluded that children,
students and educators enjoyed working with PLATO. ETS
study of the use of PLATO in community colleges found that
PLATO, had a favorable impact on student and faculty
attitudes, while its study of PLATO in elementary schools
found that the users were quite positive about PLATO
as were the evaluators.
ETS was much more modest in its conclusion regarding the instructional
achievements of PLATO. In a community college setting it concluded
that PLATO had no effect on student attrition and no
significant impact on student achievement. In the elementary
schools where PLATO was used for mathematics and reading,
ETS found the system to be no more effective than the
In other words, in these early reports PLATO was judged an
able teacher, but not necessarily better than a human one.
[end of page 8]
In the face of such ambiguous results, convincing a non-business
audience to invest in education or computer applications remained
a recurring problemnot just for CDC but for all companies
in the field. By 1984, CDC had changed its campaign style
and ran an advertisement series that did focus on real people.
In May of that year, Fortune, Forbes and the Wall
Street Journal ran a CDC ad featuring, for example, University
of Georgia student Carolyn Christian who used PLATO to learn
Incidentally, in 2002, Apple-Macintosh developed a very successful
advertisement campaign in which real people, clearly identified
by name and occupation, related their motivation to switch
from the PC to the Apple platform.
In reaction to this campaign, however, Microsoft committed
a marketing mistake much resembling CDCs in the early
1980s. In 2002, Microsofts web site carried a letter
allegedly written by a free-lance writer who after
eight years of using Apple had switched over to
the Windows platform. The womans name was not given,
only her photo, and the fact that she was married
and had once rented a Lexus.
It soon turned out that the mystery woman was actually an
employee at a public relations company hired by Microsoft.
After the full truth had been discovered, Microsoft quickly
pulled down the ad.
Beyond advertisement campaigns, CDC also developed rather
ingenious financing structures to try and boost the sale of
PLATO. In 1982, for instance, CDC offered the University of
Maryland a CDC Cyber 170/720 with the PLATO system, using
Servico Leasing Inc. as an intermediary.
Maryland was to pay this leasing company $600,000
a year for seven years for the computer. The University of
Maryland also received CDC licensing rights for all 11,000
hours of PLATO courseware for free. Under the deal, the university
would resell PLATO services for less than the regular price
to surrounding institutions. With the income, the university
was expected to face no problems meeting yearly payments to
Servico to become the owner of the system. Yet by 1988, the
University of Maryland had to close down its PLATO center,
finding it not to be cost-effective.
Following the logic of corporate social responsibility, CDC
also developed several new PLATO applications that targeted
market segments outside of the regular educational domain.
During many of his lectures between 1976 and 1981, Norris
discussed, for example, the respective benefits of AGSERV
and TECHNOTEC to small farmers, and FAIR BREAK for inner city
The agribusiness sector needs a massive
dose of technology and information supplied unlike this
country had ever provided before. This need grows ever more
urgent. . . . Computer technology has advanced to the point
where it can meet these information and technology transfer
needs. Control Datas AGSERV, TECHNOTEC, and PLATO
computer-based education services are specifically responding
to them today. AGSERV is a more accurate and timely service
for crop information that is being developed
[end of page 9]
TECHNOTEC is a worldwide computer-based
communication information and technology transfer system.
. . . PLATO CBE is for training and education. . . . There
are not yet enough computer-based education courses available
to warrant home ownership of a PLATO terminal, so that delivery
of education is best achieved now by PLATO terminals in
cooperative offices, chamber of commerce offices, extension
offices, and privately operated learning centers.
Control Data is implementing a program
of achieving nationwide delivery of TECHNOTEC and PLATO
computer-based education via those places. However, as soon
as enough courseware is available, it will be in the economic
interest of the average American farm family to own a PLATO
terminal, both for education as well as for rapid access
to information and technology. The courseware can be written
within the next three or four years.
PLATO computer-based education is [also]
central to Fair Break. A Control Data inner city program
to prepare young, disadvantaged unemployed persons to get
and keep a job and to make jobs more available to them.
Our first Fair Break center is now operating in St. Paul
and delivering innovative training and employment to inner
Moreover, Control Datas own corporate constituents
were also PLATO-ized. For its employees, Norris
developed the Fair Exchange:
Fair Exchange: A Partnership For
is a partnership, a shared commitment
that Control Data will help each employee achieve personal
goals at the same time the employee strives to help Control
Data achieve corporate goals.
The premise is that we all perform best
in an environment of caring where there is a sincere effort
to use available resources in an equitable, consistent and
humanistic manner, as among employees, company and other
] While there is more work ahead
of us, substantial progress has been made, so much so that
what we are doing is seen as a new culture building within
Control Dataa culture that is distinct from that of
other organizations following more traditional practices.
In addition, some CDC stockholders received PLATO terminals
in their own homes to allow them to communicate with management
and aid the company to overcome social resistance to its products
and services. As Norris put it:
By utilizing PLATO computer-based education,
shareholders or other corporate constituents can learn about
issues of importance to them, ask questions and tell us
what they think. In addition to financial and product data,
information is stored in the computer regarding Control
Datas position on current issues, such as trading
with communist countries, doing business in South Africa,
and hostile takeovers. Incidentally, our position on corporate
governance is being prepared for entry into PLATO.
The main points about the PLATO approach
are that a constituent can access information that he or
she is interested in, ask questions and comment. In other
words, they have an opportunity for some ready dialogue
with corporate management [
[end of page 10]
Profitability, and Social Responsibility
The point of all CDCs investments, Norris stressed
in his lectures, was to make a profit. Control
Data was not doing it for altruistic or corporate philanthropic
reasons. Norris stressed that he expected the sale of all
the various social applications, especially all the different
systems making use of PLATO to become very profitable for
CDC. In the meantime, Norris believed, the implementation
of PLATO within the company itself, and in nontraditional
segments of the market would also boost Control Datas
Such programs as these produce highly positive
results for business within the local communities in which
they are performed. Neither the number nor the accomplished
results are yet great enough to achieve widespread awareness,
but they are an important part of the overall approach that
will greatly enhance the business image.
However, both the morality and the economic rationale of
Control Datas investments were often contested. With
respect to offering the Homework project for sale, Norris
the last thing that a disabled person or
non-disabled person wants is charity. All want and deserve
to be a part of mainstream America, which is an entrepreneurial
society. . . . No one objects to a reasonable profit for
a can of beans. Why should there be objections to making
a profit on meeting special needs of disabled persons?
This time the Minneapolis Star actually received the
Homework project favorably.
The newspaper reported on two participants, Olson
and Guy, who had become paralyzed from the chest down through
accidents. The two had signed up for an (especially adapted)
PLATO course in programming basics at the local Courage Center.
Olson successfully completed the course and then went on to
take the regular programming course for CDC employees on an
adapted PLATO terminal. After graduation, CDC had promised
to hire him to work as a part-time programmer. Guy, who was
still in training, said of his new career path:
I dont care about machines because
they havent done anything to help blacks . . . Computerization
has helped worsen black unemployment. . . . Machines have
nothing to do with the spirit and quality of life. . . .
[But] Ive got to eat. If I dont learn something
about technology, I might be out of a job in three or four
The biggest controversy over CDCs notion of corporate
governance broke out, though, over its PLATO sales to South
Africa in 1980only three years after the Soweto riots,
and during a period in which the regime had declared a total
war on security. Church groups in the United States
chastised the company repeatedly for its South African business.
In 1985, a report appeared by the Africa Research
& Publications Project, Inc., New Jersey, in which CDC
was accused of giving the South African government the tools
to keep apartheid in place: [end of page 11]
What Control Data Corporation claims to
be an educational solution to black inequality in South
Africa seems, in fact, to be a solution to the regimes
present shortage of skilled labor, its conflict with increasingly
politicized students and educators, and its self-preservatory
[sic] need to centralize and augment security information.
In a country where black teachers seldom have more than
an eighth grade education and black students struggle to
buy textbooks and supplies it is ironic that [$900 million]
are being spent on computer equipment for schools. Having
no cure for a national uprising, the South African government
is resorting to computer surveillance and control for its
Of course CDC was hardly the only American computer company
to trade with South Africa throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
By far the largest player in this field was IBM. Its annual
sales were $180 million by 1985. CDC was only ninth on the
list of American computer sales to the African country, with
a total of $27 million in 1985.
In contrast to even fairly recent accusations, CDCs
computers were never used to administer the notorious passbook
The passbook was an extensive form of ID that all
black South Africans had to carry with them at all times.
It allowed the government to strictly control their movements
beyond their assigned homeland. This pillar of
apartheid rule was processed on British International Computers
Limited (ICL) mainframes. It was IBM that had made an unsuccessful
bid for the passbook system for black South Africans in 1965.
In the 1970s, IBM obtained the contract for the computers
that registered the book of life mandatory for
colored and Indian South Africans.
The international embargo was not installed until 1977, however,
and all trade that CDC and other American companies were engaged
in after that year, even when morally questionable, was at
least technically legal.
According to new stipulations made by President Reagan in
1985, all computer sales to the South African military,
the police, the prison administration, the national security
agencies, to apartheid enforcing agencies and to the South
African weapons manufacturer Armscor were banned.
Trade with the South African Council for Scientific
and Industrial Research (CSIR) was permitted, however, if
the material was intended for non-military use. CDC had lobbied
hard for this exception, as CSIR was one of its biggest trade
partners. Of course, as anti-Apartheid activists in the 1980s
pointed out, the problem was that it was quite impossible
to check whether CSIR was using any of its systems in the
300 terminal network for military related communications or
Throughout his lectures, Norris maintained however that CDC
was simply helping black South Africans get access to higher
education for the first time. Its the black church
and community leaders in South Africa who are most enthusiastic
about PLATOs potential, Norris said at a press
conference for Micro-PLATO in 1980.
In general, Norris believed:
Fretting about executive perks
or pointing fingers at overseas payments makes spicy reading,
but accomplishes little else. All of the church and student
attention devoted to questioning the morality of doing business
in South Africa is not only unproductive but hypocritical,
when we remember that 35% of the disadvantaged youth in
our society are denied the basic rights of a decent job.
[end of page 12]
End of Plato?
Norris published lecture series ended in 1981, a year
after Micro-PLATO had been officially introduced into the
world. CDCs stand-alone version ran PLATO courseware
from a floppy disc rather than via a dialup network. It was
expected to be the definitive step in the realization of that
long-announced event: the moment when the PLATO division would
become more profitable than CDCs mainframe division.
At the official introduction of Micro-PLATO, Norris reaffirmed
his initial conviction that educational computing will
become the largest contributor to CDC profits sometime after
The newspapers soon picked up on this story:
After 20 years of research and development
and investing $900 million in cash, Control Data Corp. has
yet to make any significant profits on PLATO, its computer-based
education system. . . .Yet, vice president for education
Miller and William Norris expect . . . big money from it,
too, beginning by 1984 and accounting for more than half
the giant companys profits in 10 to 15 years.
Yet the anticipated success of Micro-PLATO did not materialize.
In 1986, William Norris retired from CDC. In 1989, his successor
Lawrence Perlman sold the entire PLATO division:
[July 18] the financially struggling company
[CDC] announced that it was divesting itself of PLATO and
the associated remains of its training and education business.
It will turn them over to a new company to be run by a Chicago
employee-training firm. Control Data will keep a 20 percent
interest in the company.
Currently, PLATO software and technology is owned by PLATO
Inc., based in Minneapolis.
The sale of PLATO was part of Perlmans overall strategy
to dramatically scale down CDCs activities. Over the
course of the 1980s, as microcomputers increased in popularity,
profits in CDCs mainframe and super computer divisions
had continued to decrease.
Yet, despite all Norris predictions, PLATO did not take
over the lead. As a result, CDC reconsidered its commitment
to PLATO and its strategy of corporate social responsibility.
The company could no longer afford to direct long term
investments toward a future social and economic success
Why did PLATO fail commercially, or did it? In the eyes
of William Norris, despite all the extensive criticism and
challenges of PLATO, the system never lost its allure: [end
of page 13]
At the press conference in January 1986
where he announced his decision to retire as chairman and
chief executive, [Norris] was asked what he considered his
proudest accomplishment. His unhesitating answer: PLATO.
As we have seen, in the 1970s, PLATO was one of the most
technologically advanced CBE systems available. Thanks to
Bitzer and his team, especially PLATOs display and online
communication features were quite unsurpassed. The system
also already had substantial backing in the educational world,
with CERL serving a variety of communities.
It was not that CDC neglected to invest in the PLATO system,
after taking commercial control over the product in 1976.
Quite the contrary, Norris made sure CDC set aside hundreds
of millions of dollars for the long-term development of the
system. As demonstrated in this article, Norris defended these
investments by portraying PLATO not just as an excellent CBE
system, but as an efficient solution to pressing social problems.
Yet it was precisely this social outlook that drew a lot of
criticism from journalists, investors, and human rights activists
alike. From this perspective, PLATO not only failed to become
profitable as a product, but Norris strategy of corporate
social responsibility also failed to have the intended marketing
In 1988, Donald Bitzer was asked to explain CDCs failure
to commercialize PLATO successfully. He put most of the blame
on CDCs decision, in 1976, to go into competition
with [University of Illinois] authors over courseware.
Although CDC had the rights to all the original courseware
written for Bitzers group in the 1960s, the company
chose to write its own.
Moreover, CDC paid its authors considerably more for a single
course than CERL ever had (sometimes as much as $300,000).
Consequently, to render a profit a CDC course would need a
great many more paying users. As Bitzer put it:
In my opinion, they produced an inferior
program at a very high cost because they had an organization
that needed the work.
Looking back in 1986, Norris himself believed that CDC had
lost valuable time and money in their switch-over to Micro-PLATO.
Indeed, Norris experiences seem to run counter to the
common notion that PLATO had always been ahead of its
time and should naturally have benefited from the PC
revolution. In general, the PC played of course a crucial
role in rendering CBE affordable to a much larger segment
of the educational market. However, some of the strongest
and most characteristic features of PLATO initially seem to
have had little place in a PC world, especially before the
widespread use of the Internet. Norris related how CDC initially
contracted Texas Instruments (TI) and begun rewriting all
PLATO courseware for use on their PCs in 1981. A year later,
however, TI decided it would permanently withdraw from the
PC market. CDC subsequently had to re-rewrite its courseware
for use on Apple or IBM. Then, by 1983, Norris realized that
the idea of selling PLATO courseware as a simple set of floppy
disks was fundamentally flawed in itself.
[end of page 14] There was hardly a profit margin on courseware
diskettes, and a stand-alone Micro-PLATO did not offer a customer
any online support, control or communication services. And
the latter, Norris believed, were precisely among PLATOs
most appealing features.
By the mid-1980s CDC therefore settled for a Micro-PLATO
system in which courseware was downloaded from the mainframe
center onto a PC. The user then could go through the lesson
in a stand alone manner, thereby keeping long
distance phone outlays to the minimum. At the end of the lesson,
courseware results were to be sent back to the center for
comparison and processing. CDC would so remain, Norris pointed
out, a center for the delivery of educational services
rather than the sale of educational products.
However, by the mid-1980s, CDC was hardly in a position to
wait for PLATO much longer. In the midst of the
computer wars, the company needed capital, and
Betty Van Meer, PLATO: From Computer-Based
Education to Corporate Social Responsibility, Iterations:
An Interdisciplinary Journal of Software History 2 (November
5, 2003): 1-22.
The author thanks Carrie Seib, Maria Plonski, and Philip
Frana for their support and assistance in providing materials
from the new William C. Norris Papers and the CDC collection
for use in this article. She is also grateful for the insightful
comments and suggestions provided by the two anonymous Iterations
A. Heuer, Control Data Corporation/Commercial Credit
Company, Case B: PLATO, A Case prepared at the Center
for Business and Public Policy, University of Maryland, College
Park (1984), 1. See also note 40.
critics and defenders of computer-based education alike see
the military as the decisive factor in pushing the development
of this technology. Compare Douglas D. Noble, The Classroom
Arsenal: Military Research, Information Technology, and Public
Education (London and New York: The Falmer Press, 1991)
with Theodore M. Shlechter, Promises, Promises: History
and Foundations of Computer-Based Training, in Theodore
M. Shlechter (ed.), Problems and Promises of Computer-Based
Training (Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corporation,
Snyder, Digest of Education Statistics 1987 (Washington:
Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department
for example D. Alpert and D.L. Bitzer, Advances in Computer-Based
Education, Science (Volume 167, 1970): 1582-1590,
and the critique and final response that followed in Robert
J. Seidel, Felix F. Kopstein, Ronald J. Swallow, Daniel Alpert
and Donald L. Bitzer, CAI: Technological Misconceptions,
Science (Volume 168, 1970): 1397-1398, 1400. Another
author who was critical of the achievements realized in computer-based
education thus far, but at the same time pressed for further
educational reform was Anthony G. Oettinger, Run Computer
Run (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969).
the importance of Sputnik for computer-based education (via
the adoption of the National Defense Education Act) see: Shlechter,
Promises, Promises, 2 and Noble, The Classroom
Arsenal, 14, 19 and 20.
the role of NSF see: Shlechter, 5 and Noble, 20.
the success of Bitzers group, the Control Systems laboratory
was renamed in 1961 into the Coordinated Science Laboratory,
and in 1967 he received his own Computer-based Education Laboratory.
See: Interview with Donald Bitzer conducted by M. Price,
17 August 1982 (CBI: OH 283): 2 and 5.
[end of page 15]
C. Worthy, William C. Norris: Portrait of a Maverick (Cambridge,
MA: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1987), 84/5.
PLATO System (Computer-based Education Research Laboratory,
the Korean War, Braunfeld had been one of the principle programmers
of the Cornfield Radar system at the Control Systems Laboratory.
R.A. Kingery, R.D. Berg, E.H. Schillinger, Men and Ideas
in Engineering: Twelve Histories from Illinois (Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1967).
Computer Sciences Men-of-the-Year, Data Management
(June, 1975): 19-26.
Bitzer, P. Braunfeld, W. Lichtenberger, PLATO: An Automatic
Teaching Device (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois,
Coordinated Science Laboratory, 1961).
Bitzer, E.R. Lyman & J.A. Easley, Jr., The Uses of
PLATO: A Computer-Controlled Teaching System (Urbana,
Illinois: University of Illinois, Coordinated Science Laboratory,
Tenczar was a biologist who took the initiative to develop
a more general purpose language for PLATO at CERL
around 1967. See OH 283, 39 and D.L Bitzer, The Wide
World of Computer-Based Education, Advances in Computers
(Volume 15, 1976): 269.
and Bitzer, Advances in Computer-Based Education,
L. Bitzer, PLATO: An Adventure in Learning with Computer-Based
talks about events leading up to his founding of Control Data
in: Oral History Interview with William C. Norris conducted
by Arthur L. Norberg, 28 July and 1 October 1986 (CBI:
OH 116) and also in An Interview with William C. Norris
conducted by Carol Pine, January 28 1982 (CBI: OH 270):
William C. Norris, 83; OH 283: 17, 23, and An Interview
with Donald L. Bitzer conducted by Sheldon Hochheiser,
19 February 1988 (CBI: OH 141): 1-3.
283: 24-25. Bitzer recalled how he, Harold Brooke and a third
person had visited William Norris in Minneapolis to talk matters
over. Bitzer believed that Norris was at this point interested
in putting a low-risk stake in PLATO research, knowing that
its competitor IBM had been spending millions
on their own research without it going anywhere.
[end of page 16]
Around 1968, CDC stepped up its involvement with PLATO IV,
when it sold the Computer-Based Education Laboratory a CDC
64-6500. For this second contract, Bitzer made a new trip
to CDC to state his case (this time accompanied by Dan Alpert).
Norris agreed to a contract where CERL would pay nothing the
first year, followed by increasing installments in subsequent
years (when presumably more money would have come in from
government grants and new PLATO contractors). But because
of CDCs decentralized corporate structure, each of the
vice-presidents had to give CERL their individual permission
for the deal as well. This second contract would be followed
by at least two more over the 1970s and 1980s. OH 283: 28
and OH 141: 5-8
PLATO Highlights, 5.
283: 21-22. More specifically, between 1957-1965, the laboratory
received funds from Army Signal Corps and Ordnance Corps,
the Office of the Naval Research, and the Air Force Office
of Scientific Research. Nobel, The Classroom Arsenal, 101.
283: 26, 29 and OH 141: 5. Around the same time PLATO received
its first funding from NSF, the latter also put a large amount
of money in TICCIT a computer-based education system under
development at the MITRE Corporation. Shlechter, Promises,
Promises, 5. NSFs involvement with PLATO ended
in 1977. Financial Supporters of the PLATO Project.
PLATO Highlights, 5.
Alpert, and D. L. Bitzer, Advances in Computer-Based
1585. In fact, on the basis of these communicative network
features, PLATO could now arguably claim priority for having
invented instant messaging, emoticons,
etc. This apparently is the goal of a forthcoming book by
Brian Dear. See www.plato.com.
should be noted that by 1974, CERLs interest in assigning
PLATO-rights to CDC was as genuine as CDCs desire to
commercialize. Bitzer explained how it had always been difficult
to obtain funding for hardware (relative to labor costs).
And he also believed that it would get increasingly difficult
to obtain additional federal funding for the PLATO project.
Yet CERL was in need of Extended Core Storage and wanted to
keep up with the pace of mainframe improvements. If CDC was
willing to continue its hardware support as part of an agreement
on courseware and other PLATO essentials the two could make
ideal partners. This was also the explanation the University
of Illinois gave to NSF regarding their CDC deal. UI officials
mentioned that it had taken CDCs competitors into consideration
(particularly Xerox, IBM, Raytheon, Magnavox, Eastman Kodak,
Texas Instruments, and Owens-Illinois) but found each of these
lacking in their financial and commercial commitment to PLATO.
See: Memorandum from James F. Hogg to David Barnes, on August
1, 1974, regarding CDC-PLATO-Courseware License Agreement;
Letter from George A. Russell, Vice Chancellor for Research,
UI, to Leonard A. Redecke, Contracting Officer, NSF, September
Pantages, Control Datas Education Offering: Plato
would have enjoyed PLATO, Datamation (May
1976): 183, 186-7.
[end of page 17]
and UI established separate agreements on courseware, software,
patent licenses, plasma display licenses, and Control Data
equipment, products and related services.
To facilitate the transfer of PLATO knowledge, several CERL
researchers were sent to CDC to train their staff. According
to Bitzer, several members of this CERL group then stayed
on at CDC permanently. OH 283: 52.
It may also be noted that the contract between the University
of Illinois and Control Data Corporation did not end Bitzers
involvement with PLATO. Rather, the two partners had agreed
to exchange all patents, hardware technology and even software.
So that, after 1976, there were, in a sense, two parallel
PLATO tracks. CERL was entitled to attract and serve new PLATO
customers for up to four terminals apiece. Bitzer also undertook
various promotional activities on behalf of CDC. Potential
CDC customers could visit the CERL lab, and see PLATO used
in a classroom setting. Bitzer even did some lectures in South
Africa, Australia, Russia, Germany, and Venezuela for CDC.
However, by the late 1970s, due to CDCs refusal to use
much of the original PLATO courseware, the two partners were
in a state of benign neglect. It was not until
1983, with the adaptation of PLATO for the microcomputer that
Bitzer sought contact with CDC again. OH 141: 9-10, 15 and
Control Data Corporation/Commercial Credit Company, 2.
The precise meaning of corporate social responsibility continues
to evolveboth in conceptual and in empirical terms.
In the 1920s, corporate philanthropy gained much visibility
as a form of socially inspired behavior through Carnegie,
Vanderbilt and Rockefeller. The early 20th century also brought
a divers group of pioneers in welfare capitalism to the foreground
including Endicott Johnson, Hershey, US Steel, the Filene
Department Store, and Henry Ford. But where corporate philanthropy
tends to address the larger community, while welfare capitalism
is aimed at ones own employees, the concept of corporate
social responsibility (CSR) has taken on a much broader
meaning. It starts from the fundamental idea that a public
enterprise has a public responsibility (and arguably an intrinsic
self-interest) beyond immediate profit making. Business historians
have traced the term back to a 1957 publication by Howard
R. Bowen entitled Social Responsibilities of the Businessman.
But the CSR concept really began to proliferate in the
late 1960s-early 1970s. By that time the military-industrial
complex was well established, while at the same time
television, cheaper airfare, and a dense high-way network
had rendered the average citizen much better informed and
also much more critical of the formers growth in power. The
civil rights movement of the 1960s and the environmental movement
of the 1970s also factored into the growing public resentment
towards the perceived goals of Big Business.
[end of page 18]
William Norris embrace of CSR therefore came exactly
at this challenging period in corporate history. Although
on the one hand, as we have just seen above, CDC and PLATO
were themselves off-springs of the military-industrial
complex, William Norris did his best (perhaps even for
that reason) to make his company a trendsetter in the CSR
movement. As we will see below, Norris implementation
of CSR via PLATO and PLATO-based applications brought a commitment
to innovative projects which addressed social needs, and were
often seen (by investors) as carrying relatively high risks,
because they only were expected to render a profit after a
long and costly gestation period.
For historical perspectives on corporate social responsibility
and related concepts see for example: Edward Berkowitz and
Kim McQuaid, Businessman and Bureaucrat: The evolution
of the American social welfare system, 1900-1940, The
Journal of Economic History (March, 1978): 120-142; Stuart
D. Brandes, American Welfare Capitalism, 1880-1940
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976); Archie B. Carroll,
Corporate Social Responsibility: Evolution of a Definitional
Construct, Business and Society (September, 1999):
268-295; Morell Heald, Business Thought in the Twenties:
Social Responsibility, American Quarterly (Volume
13, 1961): 126-139; Edwin M. Epstein, Business Ethics
and Corporate Social Policy, Business and Society
(March, 1998): 7-40; Mark Sharfman, Changing Institutional
Roles: The Evolution of Corporate Philanthropy, 1883-1953,
Business and Society (December 1994): 236-270; Gerald
Zahavi, Workers, Managers, And Welfare Capitalism: The
Shoemakers and Tanners of Endicott Johnson, 1890-1950
(Urbana: University of Illinois, 1988).
a perhaps more limited use of this term see: James C. Worthy,
William C. Norris, 89
also the chapter on Worker Performance and Productivity in:
James C. Worthy, New Frontiers for Business Leadership
(Minneapolis: Dorn Books).
Data named the lecture series perspectives on employing
technology to solve the pressing problems of society.
(There are 19 lectures in this series.)
Technology and Corporate Governance (Volume 13, December,
Technological Cooperation for Survival (Volume 1, February,
for example, CDC Introduces Stand-Alone PLATO,
Electronic News (October 20, 1980).
Via Technology to a New Era in Education (Volume 2,
June 1977): 1.
Technology and the Humanities (Volume 14, March, 1980):
Data Intros PLATO, Adweek/Midwest Advertising News
(May 31, 1982), Gregor W. Pinney, Studies Dont
Confirm Claims for PLATOs Teaching Success, Minneapolis
Tribune (August 22, 1982).
W. Pinney, Studies Dont Confirm Claims;
Gregor W. Pinney, How
PLATO Teaching System Works, Minneapolis Tribune
(August 22, 1982); Pinney, Texas Students Show Mixed
Results Using PLATO, Report Says, Minneapolis Tribune
(December 20, 1982).
[end of page 19]
How PLATO Teaching System Works.
ibid., op cit.
Texas Students Show Mixed Results.
D. Driscoll, The PLATO System: A Study in the Diffusion
of an Innovation (Ph.D. thesis for the University of Massachusetts,
1987): 116-118, op cit.
PLATO Advantages Publicized, The University
of Georgia Faculty Staff News (May 7, 1984).
Microsoft Pulls Phony Switch Ad, http://www.wired.com/news/
business/o,1367,55785,00.html, Oct. 15, 2002.
W. Lippman, Unusual Deal Cuts Computer Learning Costs,
Washington Post (June 21, 1982).
Back to the Countryside Via Technology (Volume 5, January,
Technology for the Inner City-Experience & Promise
(Volume, 8, 1978): 6.
Technology for Company-Employee Partnership to Improve
Productivity (Volume 17, June 1981): 5. See also NH 299:
Technology and Corporate Governance, 8/9.
Technology for Improving the Image of Business (Volume
7, July, 1978): 4.
Technology and the Handicapped (Volume 12, August,
Reveron, Technical Training for the Disabled: These
Computers Programmed for Hope (Minneapolis Star,
Monday October 27, 1980).
Winkler, At Introduction of Micro PLATO: Norris Attacks
Churches Criticism of CDC, Computer World
(October 27, 1980): 81.
G. Bartholomay, Control Datas PLATO Computer and
South Africas Apartheid Education System (New Jersey:
Africa Research & Publications Project, Inc., 1985): 41
Knight, U.S. Computers in South Africa (New York: The
Africa Fund, 1986): i.
1997 an editorial in the Los Angeles Timesas
far as I can judge falselystated that PLATO had been
used by the South African Security Forces to manage
the hated passbook system, the basic documentary enforcement
of apartheid. See Gary Chapman, China Represents
Ethical Quagmire in High-Tech Age, Los Angeles Times
(January 27, 1997).
U.S. Computers, 9.
[end of page 20]
have found reference to only one case where CDC was indirectly
connected to illegal trade with South Africa. In 1982, ICL
was fined $15,000 for having sold nine mainframes to the South
African Police. Inside those mainframes were 9780 CDC disk
storage units. CDC had sold those to its own subsidiary in
Britain, which in turn passed them on to ICL. CDC claimed
however to have explicitly warned ICL that US regulations
prohibited the use of US-made subunits in equipment intended
for the South African police, and that its sales to ICL were
in compliance with US law. NARMIC/American Friends Service
Committee, Automating Apartheid: US Computer Exports to
South Africa and the Arms Embargo (Philadelphia, 1982):
Slob, Computerizing Apartheid: Export of Computer Hardware
to South Africa (Amsterdam: Komitee Zuidelijk Afrika,
US Computers in South Africa, 7.
At Introduction of Micro PLATO, 81.
Technology and Corporate Governance (Volume 13, December,
Lewis, CDC Introduces Stand-Alone PLATO, Electronic
News (October 20, 1980).
newspapers ran this article in March 1982. See for example
John Cunniff, PLATO still not selling smartly for CDC,
The Minneapolis Star (March 11, 1982).
Blade, CDC will sell PLATO education system, Star
Tribune (July 19, 1989).
In an effort to turn the financial tide, CDC had already taken
a $490 million writeoff to close its ailing ETA super
computer business, streamline its main frame computer segment
and further streamline its headquarters operations.
In addition, CDC had sold its Imprimis disk drive subsidiary
to Seagate Technology of California for $450 million in cash
William C. Norris, 106.
remains unclear why CDC decided not to rely more extensively
on UI courseware very much. One factor may well have been
the reluctance with which UI authors and particularly the
NSF had given their consent to transfer their courses to CDC
in the first place. According to an internal CDC memo the
transfer of courseware from UI to CDC was delayed for several
reasons. First of all, the UI was unsure who held responsibility
within its administration to release UI courseware. Secondly,
some UI authors did not want their courseware to be commercialized
on principle, or because they felt it was outdated, or because
CDC did not remunerate them sufficiently. Thirdly, the NSF
maintained initially that it held rights in all courseware
since it had paid for some of the system courseware.
And the NSF felt that CDC should not become the sole vendor
of the courseware, but that all of material should remain
available for additional proprietors. See: CDC Memorandum,
from T.T. Spengler, to R.D. Conner et al, April 26, 1976;
Letter from George A. Russell, Vice Chancellor for Research
at UI to Leonard A. Redecke, Contracting Officer at NSF, September
[end of page 21]
William C. Norris, 96-100.
[end of page 22]
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