One of my favorite urban legends involves a nationally recognized university in a town not far from me, and actually has some truth to the tale. The University of Illinois, located in Champaign-Urbana Illinois has been at the threshold of many experimental studies and advancements, however there was one rumor that just seemed to be a little much. It was the legend of the “super computer” in the Foreign Language building.
In 1971, the Foreign Language building was erected on the Quad at the U of I. The building itself was constructed like many buildings were during the Cold War, in that it was built to withstand an atomic attack. According to some legends, there was a “super computer” hidden in the building that held all of the nation’s secrets. The computer was said to be stored there because of the building’s structure being built to collapse outward rather than inward in case a nuclear war happened.
Students passed the story through the years, each one more fantastic than the last. At some point, many began to doubt the computer had been there at all, and the story was added to the many urban legends of the U of I campus.
What is different about this story is there is an element of truth to it.
Back in the early 1970’s, the computer age was in its infancy as far as online communication. This was long before the days of Yahoo Messenger, Google Chat, or any of the messaging services that exist today. However, the concept has been in the working stages for the last several decades, and the University of Illinois did indeed have a mainframe that was stored in the basement of the Foreign Language building. The name of it was PLATO. It actually originated in the 1960’s as an educational aid for students, but as time progressed, the same technology that spawned PLATO also went on to create the instant messaging we know today.
It was placed in the Foreign Language building because of the design of the building, yes. However, it was not to guard government secrets but rather to protect a very new and growing technology in case of nuclear attack. It was placed there simply because the building was the safest one on campus at the time.
Not nearly as exciting as a “super computer” that held all the nation’s secrets and technologies, but certainly noteworthy that the campus was home to the first online messaging service!