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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
5/2/2014 | 12:09:10 PM
Baseball Cards
I was 14 (1987) and re-coded a baseball card database from a produce inventory mgmt BASIC listing I found in Antic Magazine.  It was great until I got to the 128K threshold of my Atari 130XE.  After all db field and code optimizations, I was able to store 610 max of then current and retired players, their stats/profile, birthday, and which cards of theirs I owned and how many.  It only took 5 minutes to install, and only 2 minutes to conduct a search!
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2014 | 11:14:41 AM
TI 99 Even Before Standard Keyboard
I remember the first thing out of the box with my TI 99... got a book on BASIC with the computer, new cassett recorder and stayed up for 32 hours trying to figure it out.  Actually got pretty good at basic and built several small business utility programs I used at my office... Wow my first aps.  Did write one major program that was eventually purchased by a company that turned it into a working DOS based program that could be used to calculate a pretty accurate retirement income estimate for its HR department.  They paid me $50 for the code... I think that was 1981. Now I build websites for a living... that was a long, long time ago. (Still have the TI and the old rolled paper printer, cassett player died in about 1982.)
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2014 | 11:03:27 AM
Grateful for having learned it...
We used Gary Aiken's (Dartmouth) Xeroxed, perhaps 25-page user manual, in batch mode via punch cards on a GE-415 mainframe.  Our engineering class at Union got the manual, was told to learn it in two weeks, and oh -- by the way -- had term projects due using computational methods to solve some engineering problem 3 weeks after that.

So in that context it was just another tool, not the world in itself, pervasive technology, that IT and computer science have become.  It was simply: "... you're an engineer, you've got problems; maybe you can compute a solution; here's something that computes solutions if you tell it how."  Can you imagine learning BASIC in one night?

And then spending the rest of the year "in the Computer Center?" Before some of us discovered the TIME= statement, we had a 3-minute processing limit. Well, you know what happened to batch processing after that...
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2014 | 11:02:23 AM
Both personal and professional
I programmed the Parker Brothers game Black Box on my TRS-80.

I convinced my employer that a Canon BX-3 "Programmable Calculator" would be a good start in computerization, and I received several cash awards in recognition of programs I wrote for it.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2014 | 11:01:00 AM
Basic as part of Early Career
In 1970, I was part of the Academic Services Staff at State University of New York Albany (SUNYA ) working with the team that developed Real Time Basic (timesharing version) for the UNIVAC system that was done in strong coordination with Darmouth. Among my first duties was the conversion of the Dartmouth Basic Library to the SUNYA variant. I then added many new programs for use for use within the Academic community, especially in the area of extended arithmetic, statistics and accounting/financial computing. I was also part of the NSF team that determined the syntax and mechanisms for adding graphics language extensions to include the development of example programs. Later (1977-1980) I was part of the test and quality team for the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) RSTS/E which used BASIC-PLUS as its primary development language. There were multiple test programs and system unilities that were written. I continue to this day, through the progression on apple and PC from gwbasic to todays use of visual basic.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2014 | 10:49:46 AM
SmartBasic on the ColecoVision Adam
While I always had an interest in computers my learning really started with a ColecoVision Adam computer.  While it was nothign like dealing with punch cards I'm still amazed at how much time I spent waiting for programs to load from a tape drive.  I wish I still had that much paitience!  At least it was much faster and more reliable than the standard auido tape player and tape setup of our older Timex Cinclair 1000.  Anyway, I spent countless hours learning and programming with SmartBASIC on the Adam.  I made small programs for myself, some of which were actually practical.  It was great fun and I learned a lot about computers and programming concepts in general.

Now, about 25 years later, I'm still enjoying computers.  As a system administrator my programming is mostly limited to creating and modifiing scripts but it all really started with SmartBasic on the ColecoVision Adam!
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2014 | 10:43:29 AM
Writing BASIC from magazines
I can remember getting a copy of several computer magazines and typing in the programs that were in the back of them. I can still remember the frustration at typos that were in the programs and having to troubleshoot them.

I used to spend all hours of the night and day (after school) writing my own programs. It was a great time.
Charlie Babcock
Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
5/1/2014 | 8:23:54 PM
Basic had flaws...so name a language that doesn't
The GOTO command in Basic can b e criticized, but some feature of any language can be criticized. JavaScript isn't strongly typed -- data types can be used that are only loosely defined and the system, to its author's regret, accepts them -- so it can be criticized for that. Java is strongly typed -- and it's criticized for that.
User Rank: Ninja
5/1/2014 | 6:41:16 PM
Commodore BASIC V2!
I started with BASIC on the C64 (made in Western Germany and still running fine) and the nice thing was it was right there. The 64 didn't know booting up or getting files ready, even the tablets these days are horribly slow starting up. On the 64 it was much easier than one the IIe whereyou first had to mount the floppy and then load the interpreter just to find that pretty much all memory was used up. Why did Apple not add a hardware interpreter like the Commodore folks? They could have used the same dang chip given that the hardware was similar.

Anyhow, I wrote several programs, collaborated with friends on projects, and spent endless hours typing code in from magazines and books, but programming is just such an incredibly tedious piece of work. Even today you need to decalre all kinds of stuff and wade through name spaces and objects just to get something to show up on screen. Still, BASIC allowed even me the then still barely computer literate to make the bread box do something.

And yes, the discussion about GOTO vs GOSUB was going on back then as well. GOSUB forced one to code more modular, but especially with error handling a GOTO was reasonable to use. Everything crashed and burned and the last thing that can be done is show a message. What is the point to go back to where I came from if all that can be done in the end is execute END? Sure, code can be written without GOTO, but it might just take more code and checking things twice. What is the benefit of that?

I did eventually come to quite some proficiency in VB6. The encouraging thing with BASIC is that you do not need much code to accomplish something. With a handful of codewords you can craft decent applications unlike Java where after 500 lines of nonsensical, but necessary code you can finally print a scrappy "Hello World!" on screen. I agree, with VB.NET all that ease went out the window. Anything .NET is just unnecessarily complicated and bloated.

I finally landed at PHP that has many of the same advantages of BASIC. No wonder why so many Internet startups still use it. Neither BASIC nor PHP may have great reputation, but those are languages that allow folks to accomplish something without ripping their hair out. It simply highlights the little fun that programming generates.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/1/2014 | 9:55:45 AM
Basic experience
I worked for Honeywell, in early 70's they aquired GE and I was amazed by timesharing Basic.  Immediate feedback to programming instead of waiting hours for card deck to compile, what a concept.  To the best of my knowledge the first interpretive language and even the basic compilers were very fast.  Most all of the mini-computers that followed used a form of business basic as the primary programming language. 

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