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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: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 2:34:13 PM
When BASIC and I were young
I first used BASIC while working on my MBA at USC in the early '70s. The terminals were teletype machines and the programs were 'saved' on paper tape which you had to be careful not to fold, spindle or mutilate. The first few minutes of every session were spent making sure your program read back in correctly and making corrections if it didn't. In the '80s I wrote some BASIC programs on an Apple IIe for personal use. Fast forward to the '90s and I was teaching Visual Basic at Cal Poly Pomona being one day ahead of the students for the first quarter. While it wasn't your father's BASIC it came back pretty quickly.
IW Pick
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 2:20:29 PM
From BASIC to Assembly
I was introduced to BASIC on a WANG PS2 system in 1979.  Along with a manual that taught how to program "What Animal am I?", hundreds of hours were spent in front of a small CRT, glowing green letters, and countless cups of coffee.  BASIC was my gateway drug into coding assembly on the Commodore 64.  The Transactor magazine was the official prop-head rag for serious Commodore enthusiasts.  Imagine doing virtual machines (4 of them!) on a system with 64K of memory.

I posted the first (to my knowledge) BASIC version of "Battleship" on Compuserve back in 1984 and it was a huge hit.  It had the highest download rate of any program at that time (which was probably around 100 a day - these were dial-up days, folks).

In short, BASIC began my love affair with computers.  Now, after 35 years in IT, I guess it's fair to say I owe it all to BASIC.
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 2:20:01 PM
BASIC was my first language
I was fortunate enough to be exposed to BASIC back in 1972 when my High School offered it as a beginners Computer Science course. We punched out our BASIC programs onto papertape on an old Telex terminal and then took our program to another terminal where we could dial-up Princeton University's mainframe at 110 baud and load our program into memory and execute. We were not allowed disk storage so the papertape was everything. You could tell who the geeks were by the rolls of papertape in their pockets. If we wanted to move on, the next semester were could take Fortran and keypunch our programs to run on the school's IBM 360. Lots of memories of those times.
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 1:56:14 PM
Re: I miss my Tandy and Amiga
@TTMillard: "I remember starting every program with gosub.. just because!  I loved spegetti 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."

I do hope you graduated to the obfuscated C and perl contests in later life? It sounds like you gave yourself the perfect grounding for it. 


"I remember in college (dating myself of course)"

At first I read this to mean that at college, being a computer nerd, you were of course unable to get a date. Second time of reading, I realized - I assume - that you meant that this gave an idea as to your age! Oops :)


User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 1:52:40 PM
Re: Visual BASIC
Nice article, Andrew - thanks for linking to it. I loved the Dijkstra quote in particular ;-) Thankfully I grew up (largely) with BBC BASIC which at least allowed procedures and functions in addition to GOSUB, so I got used to working that way rather than looping and using GOTO all over the place.

The link between the original BASIC and VB.Net is surely tenuous at best. The closest thing I can think is that neither uses a semicolon at the end of the line - but that's hardly a unique identifier.

I wonder how one defines what should be call BASIC? That is, what is it about VB.Net that makes it BASIC? Or even the earlier VB incarnations? At what point in the natural development/progression of a language do we stop and say "hey, this is something entirely new"?

User Rank: Author
4/30/2014 | 1:49:46 PM
Re: Nice trip down memory lane
Onejbsmith, thanks for sharing your pictures. I am sure others will enjoy them, too.
Andrew Binstock
Andrew Binstock,
User Rank: Author
4/30/2014 | 1:44:14 PM
Re: Visual BASIC
Agreed. In my own somewhat less melancholic retrospective on BASIC's first 50 years, I suggest that VB is not a real descendant of original BASIC. Microsoft has revved the language and added so many features, that you can only see faint echoes of the original language. Certainly, VB cannot compile any of the original BASIC. Whereas COBOL compilers (and I believe FORTRAN compilers too) can compile early programs in the language, with only minor tweaks.

One could argue that C++ is closer to C, than VB is to BASIC.
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 1:33:51 PM
BASIC is still Around!
  Amazingly, the stuff is still around and people are using derivitives of of it. There is a VB .net and all.


I remember the firs MS Visual BASIC and man, what a mess/pain that was for developing graphics. never played with the ,net stuff, hopefully it is a lot better. Getting BASIC to provide graphics based apps is one heck-ova hack.
IW Pick
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 1:01:40 PM
Re: Nice trip down memory lane
First time I saw Basic was in '66. I didn't know it the time, but Keremy and Kurtz were likely on the other end of the line. I was in high school in New Hampshire and we had a time-sharing terminal linked to Dartmouth's mainframe. (The pictures below are of the very terminal and a BASIC program for it). I didn't get the concept at the time, though, having been recently indoctrinated in inequalities, upon seeing  "x=x+1", I thought, "No. x does NOT equal x+1".

Fast forward 10 years, and as a newly-hired actuarial student for a Georgia insurance company, I was handed a spiral-bound booklet describing the Basic language and wound up using it daily mostly to do actuarial calculations.

Fast forward another 10 years and I was earning my living writing apps in compiled Basic, which morphed into what eventually became VB.NET. For a while Basic (Visual Basic) was the sanest way to create Windows apps which was what made it wildly popular at the time. 


BASIC Time-sharing Terminal Circa 1966

BASIC Program circa 1966


User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 1:01:39 PM
BASIC Taught me critical thinking and problem solving
I wrote my first BASIC program when I was 6 years old on a Commodore 64 that my uncle had bought for me. Well it was more like copy from the back of the user manual that came with the machine, but it was my first experience with it. I spent hours hunting and pecking over the keyboard, making sure that every keystroke was complete and correct.

After I was done and ran the program, I had a red ball bouncing back and forth acrossed my screen. LAter that night, my mother turned of the computer while I slept, and thus erased my program. I was frustrated at that and began retyping the program in, making alterations even at that young of an age. My mother made sure to not turn it off this day, and when I was done, I had 3 balls bouncing each a different color.

Going into middle school I had a comp sci teacher who was teaching us AppleII BASIC and as one of the students who loved to tinjhker with programs and hungered for more knowledge about computers, a few friends and I would find sometimes short but always terse one-line basic programs in the computing magazines of the day. They were very archaic and we would rewrite them into a more readable format, and then tweak them further back into one-liner programs.

This led to my critical thiniking and problem solving indoctrination. In a recent article there has been mention that todays acedemia doesn't teach problem solving. Perhaps they should look towards a simple language like BASIC to help teach these fundamentals. I know I am crossing into another topic, but I know that it helped me in my career that I have enjoyed now for over 15 years professionally.

I owe alot to my Comp Sci teacher and to the founders/creators of BASIC. Thank you sirs! My life might have been so different without BASIC. PErhaps all of ours would have been, even if we never programmed.
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