TUTOR Programming Language

Computer Code - at 1010 write Hello, world!
(Dear, 2017, 129)


“TUTOR is designed to allow teachers lacking computer experience to author complex materials without the aid of a programmer” – (Tenczar, 1974, 446)

Imagine sitting and typing code for 50 lines, longer than this exhibit, just to say two words. Not even having an arrow to quickly go back to a line where there is a mistake. Think of how time consuming and how much effort has to be put in to write a lesson for your students.

Although Elisabeth Lyman’s GENERAL logic, a programming language, was an improvement on the previous system of “punching in strange hexadecimal codes onto possibly hundreds of feet of oily paper tape,” clearly further improvements were necessary (118).

Competing languages included CATO, FORTRAN, CATORES, CHATPLT, and MONSTER but all of these languages had major flaws that limited their productivity capabilities. Paul Tenczar, for example, was frustrated with the lack of an on-screen arrow, or cursor. This motivated Tenczar to create a new programming language, TUTOR. 

TUTOR’s logic took better advantage of the computing capabilities of the PLATO system. By introducing the COMMAND and TAG structure, the TUTOR programming language made computer programming a real possibility for any interested student at the University of Illinois, and beyond, after 1967.

Computer code
(Computer-Based Education Research Laboratory, 1973, 5)

The above code is a quickly developed math lesson using TUTOR. The “at” and “arrow” COMMANDS are followed by TAGS that specify where to display the text and the cursor on-screen. To learn how to write PLATO lessons post-1967, was simply to become familiar with popular COMMANDS.

The TUTOR lesson editor itself was a TUTOR lesson that presented each user with a HELP button that would introduce those popular COMMANDS. On top of that, NOTES was online help forum that PLATO authors used to give feedback on lessons that helped TUTOR’s logic develop in an end-user friendly way. It was heavily used and a major community building component.

TUTOR was initially, briefly named TEACHER; each acronym reflecting the Computer-Based Education goals that drove PLATO research dollars. The TUTOR programming language made writing lessons such an intuitive activity, that a wide range of authors and programs emerged. Many of these programs were not educational lessons but other ways for users to connect with one another.

Many popular games were written thanks to TUTOR’s accessibility. Primitive versions of dungeons and dragons, star trek, and flight simulator, in particular gained traction in the late 60s and early 70s. The multiplayer nature of many games meant that TUTOR drove PLATO’s capability for building the online community that characterizes much of the internet of today.

Like many technology based innovations, TUTOR began to be used less as newer programming languages became available. People had begun to shift to microcomputers and new programming codes were developed. Educational programs written in TUTOR were still being used by some companies in the early 2000s but it was becoming difficult to find people who knew how to create and fix programs in TUTOR. TUTOR may no longer be widely used or taught, but it was one of the early languages that made creating educational programs on the PLATO system easy and successful.

Abbott Power Plant: The home of the PLATO laboratory and offices.

Bitzer, D. (1976). The Wide World of Computer-Based Education. Advances in Computers, 15, 239-254, 266-272. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2458(08)60523-9

Computer-Based Education Research Laboratory. (1973). TUTOR User’s Memo: Introduction to TUTOR, 5.

Dear, B. (2017). The Friendly Orange Glow: the Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Tenczar, P., Andersen, D., Blomme, R. et. al. (1974). PLATO IV Authoring. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 6(4), 445-463. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0020-7373(74)80013-1

Wooley, D. (1994) PLATO: The Emergence of Online Community. Retrieved from http://thinkofit.com/plato/dwplato.htm#games 

Contributors: Donte Winslow