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When BASIC Was Young: Great Memories

As BASIC, the programming language that launched many a technical career, turns 50, we revisit our BASIC projects. Tell us about yours.

Google's 10 Big Bets On The Future
Google's 10 Big Bets On The Future
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The programming language BASIC will be 50 years old in May. Though much has changed it's still alive and well in the form of Microsoft Visual Basic, presently the sixth most popular programming language, according to the TIOBE index for April 2014.

Although there are many modern programming languages better suited to today's technology -- Python and Lua are personal favorites -- BASIC still matters to many who write code. And it matters as an example of openness.

BASIC was developed by John G. Kemeny (1926-1993) and Thomas E. Kurtz (1928-), who described it as an effort "to give students a simple programming language that was easy-to-learn."

[For more perspective from Dr. Dobb's editor Andrew Binstock, see BASIC Turns 50: A Love/Hate Story.]

That goal of accessibility becomes ever more important as our devices and networks become more complicated. Without accessibility, we risk denying people the opportunity to create the technological systems that shape social, political, and economic interaction. BASIC invited everyone to tinker with machines that were previously tended by a mainframe priesthood. Its birth hastened the personal computing reformation.

BASIC debuted at 4 a.m. on May 1, 1964, when two BASIC programs ran at the same time on the General Electric 225 mainframe housed at Dartmouth College. Since then, it has given rise to many different versions and has played a vital role in computer education.

John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz, creators of BASIC
Courtesy of the Dartmouth College Library
John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz, creators of BASIC Courtesy of the Dartmouth College Library

BASIC gave rise to Microsoft. The company's first product, Altair BASIC, written by Bill Gates and Paul Allen, was an interpreter for BASIC that ran on the MITS Altair 8800.

Kemeny and Kurtz's creation of BASIC not only made programming fun, it made the case for computer literacy as part of every educated person's life, said Michael T. Jones, chief technology advocate at Google, in an email. "They made that true at Dartmouth 50 years ago and it is true today the world over."
 
We have much to thank them for, said Jones. You could even say they started the open-source software movement. "By making the BASIC environment so friendly, they created a safe place for people to play and explore. The computer game movement came from BASIC. People shared games, long before there were networks, by printing the BASIC programs in Creative Computing and BYTE magazines for others to enter in and enjoy. Today we call it open source software but the origins date back fifty years."
 
"Many Google engineers have told me that their first introduction to computing was in BASIC, that BASIC is how they first saw the beauty and magic of programming," Jones continued. "No doubt this is true at other leading technology companies all around the world. This is the ultimate legacy of professors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz -- a world where the computer is a pleasant and helpful part of everyday life for billions of people."

A simpler time
For me, BASIC recalls a simpler time, when Apple was more open than it is now. I began learning BASIC in 1982 on an Apple II+, back when I was in high school. The following year, my friend Alec and I were deputized to teach BASIC under the supervision of our physics instructor, George Lang, to a handful of interested peers in a short-lived elective class.

Alec was the superior programmer (he knew Assembly Language) but BASIC was never intended for experts. The name stands for Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. The language is so simple that anyone can pick it up with a bit of effort.

I never accomplished anything noteworthy with BASIC. Probably the biggest project I undertook was to write an application to assist the playing of Avalon Hill's Squad Leader, a favorite board game of mine at the time. But playing around with BASIC gave me an understanding of programming and technology that has informed my career over the years since.

Alec and I, faced with the desire to apply to college in a way that distinguished us from other applicants, turned our knowledge of BASIC into a school computer magazine that we called Interpreter. With the help of other friends who recognized the transcript-padding potential of involvement in our publishing venture, we turned out our first issue in June 1983. That was more or less the point I decided to focus on writing for people rather than machines.

We made our magazine before the era of desktop publishing. Imagine using X-Acto knives for layout. We ran a full-page ad from Beagle Bros., a maker of Apple II software that we admired, as a courtesy and to fill a blank page. The

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Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
4/30/2014 | 10:26:57 AM
BASIC memories
Chris Wolf, CTO Americas for VMware, shared this comment on the story via Twitter: "Carrying a cassette back and forth between friends houses and collaborating on BASIC was agile dev, 80s style." Well played, Chris.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
4/30/2014 | 10:23:54 AM
Re: I Am Grateful For Having Learned BASIC From Dr. Kemeny
DougN, what an interesting opportunity to learn BASIC from Dr. Kemeny himself. Do you have any class project memories to share? Thanks for joining our discussion!
DougN170
IW Pick
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DougN170,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 9:54:48 AM
I Am Grateful For Having Learned BASIC From Dr. Kemeny
I learend BASIC from Dr. Kemeny in 1969, who was the president of Dartmouth at the time. I wasn't very good at it, but the knowledge that I could program if I put my head to it prepared me for the computer revolution to come. I was never afraid of technology after my Dartmouth years. Here I am at 63, a lawyer, mediator, author, and speaker, as technically saavy and comfortable with a vast array of machines and software. Many of my peers are confused and befuddled by it. I cannot believe the foresight that Drs. Kemeny and Kurtz had back then. I am grateful.
edhadley
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edhadley,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 9:42:32 AM
Nice trip down memory lane
I took a year of BASIC in high school, followed by two years of C++. Now I work in marketing - go figure! While I never liked the technical aspects of programming, I enjoyed working out the logic and solving programs. That's one reason why I work for Mendix, an app platform with a visual modeling environment that abstracts away the need to write low-level code. Nice article and trip down memory lane!
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