Don Bitzer has received a 2023 Alumni Achievement Award from the University of Illinois Alumni Association on behalf of the University of Illinois. The award is presented to alumni “who have attained outstanding success and national or international distinction in their chosen profession or life’s work, and whose accomplishments reflect admirably on or bring honor to their Alma Mater.”
What were his accomplishments? Among many, perhaps the most notable were PLATO, the pioneering multi-user, multimedia teaching system; the world’s first plasma display panels; and gene-editing techniques that can produce medically beneficial proteins.
They may not seem connected, but Donald L. Bitzer, ’55 ENG, MS ’56 ENG, PHD ENG ’60—a longtime faculty member in Electrical Engineering—is responsible for all these innovations. “One field led to another field, one continuous chain of projects,” he says.
By third grade, the precocious Bitzer controlled the temperature in his Collinsville, Ill., home with tools like mercury switches. In high school, he and his uncle built a radio receiver for World War II news from Europe. He had his pick of colleges, but a visit to Urbana impressed him, leading to a decision he never regretted. “I owe all my career to the University of Illinois,” he says.
From early on, he solved problems others couldn’t. After using computers and modeling to advance the field of coherent radar, he took his talents to education, creating the first computer-assisted instruction program with PLATO.
UIUC’s previously classified Control Systems Lab—originally founded to do military research during the Korean War—had just transitioned to a civilian-oriented mission under the name it still has today: the Coordinated Science Laboratory. In 1959, a colleague suggested that the new CSL try to make a big splash with computer-assisted learning, and Bitzer proved to be the right person at the right time: he had both the outstanding subject-matter expertise and the sophisticated programming skills that would be necessary to succeed.
A not-so-small detail he had to overcome was the lack of many hardware components that we take for granted today. His many innovations in support of PLATO included the world’s first plasma display screen, for which he, then graduate student Robert Willson, and fellow Electrical Engineering professor H. Gene Slottow were eventually honored with an Emmy Award (2002) and inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (2013).
But the PLATO achievement went far beyond its hardware. In the early 1970s, decades ahead of its time, PLATO introduced the phenomenon of social computing: it offered, albeit under different names, e-mail, instant messaging, multiplayer games, and chat rooms, and it hosted the world’s first online newspaper. Immensely popular at its peak, PLATO wasn’t only the world’s first general computer-based learning environment, but the world’s first genuine online community.
As the PLATO network grew, Bitzer and his colleagues had to develop new error-correction techniques to improve communication between computers. Before long they realized that the number of errors you can deal with is a critical aspect of error correction—“If you have too many errors, you couldn’t correct anything,” he said—and established ways to increase the number of errors that can be managed successfully.
Eventually they recognized the fascinating similarity between computational errors and gene mutations in the human body, in which the number of “errors,” again, is critical to questions like whether cancer will develop. Bitzer’s research career took a seemingly surprising turn towards the study of genomics, resulting in valuable gene-editing techniques that are still used today.
“We looked for the code, because we knew things were all coded,” said Bitzer. “And it turned out that nature had a beautiful code.”
Bitzer retired from Illinois in 1989 and is now a Distinguished University Research Professor at North Carolina State University. There, he works on wide-ranging projects, including voice recognition and energy from fusion, and remains generous with his time and advice to young engineers and scientists.
“I think the number-one secret is: learn to ask the right questions,” he said.