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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.

ad said, "All Beagle Bros. disks are Unlocked, Copyable, and Compatible with Apple* II, II+, and IIe. Don't settle for less."

BASIC was open in a similar way, designed to be operating system independent and hardware independent. Kemeny and Kurtz didn't patent it or protect it; they gave it away for free. That's worth remembering.

A few years ago, I got back into writing for machines, developing mobile games. BASIC made that transition much easier. If only it helped with marketing.

Charlie's start with BASIC
InformationWeek editor-at-large Charles Babcock had grand initial plans for his use of BASIC:

"BASIC was the second computer language that I attempted to use, probably in 1982 or 1983, after already having had a run-in with Waterloo Fortran. Some histories say BASIC authors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz were influenced by Fortran. But as a survivor of a university Fortran course, I felt as if I had walked out of calculus and into English Lit when I encountered the BASIC language.

"The commands looked so much like English. Their function was reflected in the meaning suggested by the characters. No one ever accused Fortran of that. With BASIC, I wasn't programming with a punch card deck on a university mainframe. I had my own computer, with the BASIC interpreter embedded in the machine.

"The long-awaited IBM PC was about to come out, but I opted for the remarkable Texas Instruments 99/4A, with its easily programmed graphics and ANSI-standard, TI BASIC. Texas Instruments was going to sell computers in the same manner as it had sold calculators, by offering superior features at affordable prices. I saw a big market developing, one in step with my burning interest in all the things that could be done with this new tool. And as a frustrated newspaper reporter, I started to think about ways to address the new age.

"I set to work learning TI BASIC and attempting my first program. The computer had a mere 256 bytes of scratchpad RAM, but if you could find one of the few tape recorders that was compatible, you could use it to hold up to 16 kilobytes of data and feed it into the machine -- 16,000 characters! What user would ever write a program bigger than that?

"I wanted to generate a game with interactive graphics for the families who would soon be buying the 99/4A. This was the age of the Atari, Commodore, and Radio Shack TRS computers. The TI model was programmable, contained a fast, 16-bit processor instead of 8-bit, and included a graphics coprocessor, everything a modern computer should have. I was in an upstate New York community, Vestal, surrounded by IBM families who were experimenting with their own home computers, in advance of the launch of the IBM PC. Many of them were using TI's. The future was clear: the IBM PC would be a business machine; the TI would be the preferred machine for home games and entertainment.

"So I set about creating a quiz-based program about our surrounding environment. When a child answered the question correctly, it triggered a bit of graphics activity illustrating the answer. If the answer was "the Erie Canal," then a mule appeared, pulling a boat along the canal. If the answer was "mountain lion" for the year an animal became extinct, then a pixelated hunter appeared, holding a long rifle. A bang announced his deed, a puff of smoke appeared at the end of the rifle, and alas, the last, somewhat chunky, mountain lion fell dead.

"I had barely gotten warmed up when I realized how few 16,000 characters really were. And another thing: BASIC was an interpretive language, good for beginner programming but poor at speed-drawing interactive graphics, even with the GPU. Everything took too long to run through the interpreter. It needed to be written in TI's Assembler, and TI maintained the 99/4A as a closed system.

"My gaming career was over before it began, and I left daily newspapers for a new life in technology journalism. But Kemeny's and Kurtz's BASIC introduced many people to programming concepts. They made real the notion that you didn't have to be a rocket scientist to make personal use of a personal computer. Borland's Turbo Basic, Microsoft's Visual Basic, and all the other Basics soon followed, along with many other languages invoking the lessons of Kemeny and Kurtz."

Those are our BASIC stories. Now we want to hear yours. Share your first experience or best memory of BASIC in the comments field. We have InformationWeek swag for the best story.

Can the trendy tech strategy of DevOps really bring peace between developers and IT operations -- and deliver faster, more reliable app creation and delivery? Also in the DevOps Challenge issue of InformationWeek: Execs charting digital business strategies can't afford to take Internet connectivity for granted.

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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User Rank: Strategist
4/30/2014 | 12:57:07 PM
Memories of a Simpler Time
I learned BASIC way back in 1978 as a freshman in college. It laid the foundation for learning more complex programming languages, such as COBOL and Assembler Language.

I wrote BASIC programs both for business and for pleasure. The most ambitious program I ever wrote for pleasure was a personal telephone book on my TRS-80 "microcomputer". You would enter the name of the person whose number you needed to find. It would do a sequential search across the cassette-based storage medium for the number, and display it on an on-screen form. Honestly, it was quicker to just look it up in a paper-based phone book! But, it looked really cool!

For business, I wrote a "database" that allows engineers in the company I worked for at the time to quickly look up parts for electronic equipment. At least it used 5.25" floppy disks for storage. I received a merit citation for my efforts.

Happy 50th Anniversary BASIC!!!! You're just four (4) years younger than I am!!!!

Tom P
Tom P,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 12:12:47 PM
BASIC lead to my career
I was 16 and got a summer job where they asked me to figure out this brand-new Cromemco System III microcomputer.  It came with an early DOS and I had to figure everything out, including self-taught BASIC.  I named her Sally.  After I'd made a few programs such as a valve-sizeing tool, my boss told me to move on and learn FORTRAN on it - which I did to build more complex programs.  I wrote in both languages for two years in that part-time job after school and summers.

I got to college two years later and the first engineering flunk-out class was: FORTRAN.  Using punch cards.  Once the professor realized that I already knew it, I passed the final with my A less than 3 weeks into the semester.  The class started with about 250 people and had about 68 by the end of the semester.  Now, I've spent my career in the online/internet world and it all started when I learned BASIC.
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 12:02:21 PM
I remember INFOBasic, too
In days of yore, I learned not only BASIC, but InfoBasic, as well, to write subroutines for a 4GL application generator for Prime minicomputers. Now everyone knows exactly how long I've been in this industry. Ha...
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 12:00:18 PM
Commodore BASIC
Another memory: My crowning achievement in BASIC at the age of 11 or thereabouts, was creating a networked chat program of sorts allowing two Commodore64 users to communicate in (not quite) real time. Since the C64s weren't networked as such, I used the only connection they had - shared access to a dual floppy drive (with 8 C64s plugged into a VIC-Switch or something very similar so they could all access it). The program was loaded from a floppy, and that floppy was then used to exchange data between the two computers.

It wasn't highly complex, but at the time it was amazing for the people who got to try it out and realize that comptuers could talk to one another across the computer lab! And all this in the nasty, nasty, Commodore BASIC (did they still call it PET BASIC?). 

Still, proof again of how simple BASIC was to program.

TT Millard
TT Millard,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 11:54:44 AM
I miss my Tandy and Amiga
Oh, do I remember BASIC.  Our math teacher in HS was tasked with the daunting challenge of attempting to teach programming, since we all know if you know math, you must be a natural programmer.  A class of networked Tandy computers, and a few awe inspired teenagers who knew poke and peek commands was a deadly combination!

I remember starting every program with gosub.. just because!  I loved spagetti code.  I called my creations "Coding Chaos".  The teacher graded my mess on the merits of it's output, since she had no clue what I had actually written.

On the side, we'd huddle in the library 'computer closet'. Literally, it was a 6 x 6 room with a small desk, chair and one Radio Shack Tandy computer.  They stuck a windowed door on the mini office so people could peer in at us (and so it wouldn't feel exactly like a closet) while we worked our magic. 

We wrote a 'pick your own adventure' game. Remember those? "Go West. Go East. Your in a large room.  There's a MASSIVE DRAGON!  There is a shiny key. What would you like to do next?"

I remember in college (dating myself of course) where i would go through computer mags and extract basic code that I would have to translate sligtly for my state of the art Commodore Amiga.  I created a strategy game where my friends could have raging ship battles that spanned the unniverse as they attempted to dominate and control distant planets (ok, it was a ten by ten grid and the planets were numbers, and the battles were a random number generator to see who lost the most ships... but we could dream).  Of course, I programmed in a few cheat codes of my own.  They never did understand how I won so much.

Thanks for jarring some very fond memories!
IW Pick
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 11:54:37 AM
BASIC Memories
I learned BASIC in college in 1973 in the only course I took in the Engineering School (I was a Political Science major). We had the luxury of working on a GE Mini via teletype keyboards with punch tape. At least we didn't have to cart around cards but had to watch out for badly punched holes. Our class project was computing the minimum and maximum speeds an Evel Knievel wannabe had to drive his motorcycle in order to jump from the top of the Physics building to the top of the Engineering Building without failing short or running off the far edge. I enjoyed the he-- out of that course and it ultimately changed my life.

I ended up going back to school in the early 80's when if you had a programming certificate and could spell BASIC you could get a job. I actually 'graduated' and turned around to teach PC-BASIC in the same school for a year. Then I went to work at a software house that wrote a networked Maintenance Management and Spare Parts Inventory package using a home-grown database and pre-GUI windowing interface.
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 11:48:53 AM
Visual BASIC
I program - just - in Visual BASIC, from time to time. I find it hard to reconcile what I thought I knew as BASIC with what VB.Net (for example) has become. I guess that's progress, because BASIC has morphed drastically over the years as VisualBASIC developed to accomodate the graphical elements and, perhaps most critically, stopped being a linear interpreted language and became an event-driven compiled language.

That said, I love that I can create a simple windows executable in VisualBASIC without needing to worry about malloc()s and similar; it has all of the "couldn't care less" automatic memory management that I love so much about BASIC and languages like Perl, while allowing you to generate distributable .EXE files all the same. Can't argue with that. I do wonder whether the original inventors of BASIC - if they had been living in the jungle in the interim - would look at VisualBASIC and recognize it as having its roots in their creation or not.
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 11:37:36 AM
BASIC and Assembler
When I was young, I had an Acorn BBC Micro, Model B.


This booted natively into a BBC BASIC environment (BASIC was stored on a ROM). BBC BASIC was relatively easy to use, as most BASICs tended to be, but its coolest feature for programmers was that you could easily embed assembler inline in your BASIC program. What that meant was that in the situation Thomas describes where BASIC just ain't fast enough to do some operations, you could focus your time on writing just the time-critical parts in 6502 Assembler, but write the rest in BASIC. This was used a lot in those games you typed in for hours from magazines, as you could achieve an awful lot with that 6502 assembler keeping the speed up.

I had many hours of fun writing useless programs on in BASIC. And when I moved to PC, there was a version of BBC BASIC available there too, which made things much simpler for me! 
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 11:18:49 AM
Re: Nice trip down memory lane
I learned Fortran in college but on the last day of my senior year, one of the professors showed me Basic.  We had been punching cards and sending our programs off to be run.  A few days later we would get to see the results.  Being able to watch Basic programs run and then change them on the fly was magical.

I ended up as a hardware engineer but during the course of time, I wrote many thousands of lines of Basic or similar code.  It opened a door that I never thought existed.

IW Pick
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 10:57:16 AM
Re: I Am Grateful For Having Learned BASIC From Dr. Kemeny
I remember sitting in the Kiewit Computer Center at a massive typewriter like thing. I would type in code onto a screen then run a compiler to see if it worked. Mostly, it didn't. I was an English Lit major, not a computer science geek. As an undergraduate I was allocated 2K of storage. By today's standards that is size of a period in a Word document. LOL. I don't remember any specific projects, but I did learn logical flow, Boolean logic, loops, if-then conditionals, and so forth. We stored our programs on paper tape with punch holes. Some people used Holerwith cards (do not fold, spindle, or mutlilate LOL). The mainframe was set up for distributed processing so many people could work at the same time. I think my wrist watch has more cpu power than that building-sized machine. Every undergradute was required to take one course in programming. Kemeny was prescient about the need to understand and be comfortable with technology. I remember a conference at the College when a bunch of guys showed up with boxes. One guy told me they were computers. I said, "No way!" He said, "Yep. In ten years, these will be as ubiquitous as televisions." "You're nuts," I said. Turns out he was about 20 years off, but still absolutely correct.
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