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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.

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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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Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 10:47:43 PM
Re: Visual BASIC
Reminds me of so many other things in life: "This is always right...except when it's wrong."

FWIW, I have zero shame at all about the many GOTOs I used in my halcyon youth.  ;)
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 10:43:19 PM
Ah, the memories
Thanks for this retrospective, Thomas.  I have fond memories of programming in BASIC when I was a kid.  I forget most of what I made, but I do remember making all kinds of fun games and useful programs that kept me entertained for hours upon hours.

 
jthomas77001
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jthomas77001,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 7:49:16 PM
Basic on a Cray
I earned an MA in French in 1977, and then became a bricklayers helper. I went back to school to get an MBA, taught French to help pay for it, learned COBOL, and discovered that language skills could be applied to IT. I taught myself BASIC on the university's Cray supercomputer by writing a program to average student grades. In 1984 a miracle occurred: a software company was looking for a BASIC programmer who could speak French. 31 years later, I am about to retire from my IT career. I still speak French, and I still love BASIC.
sten2005
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sten2005,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 4:44:52 PM
VB6
Visual Basic 6 was the best version of the Basic programming language. Since then Microsoft has ruined it by making newer versions (VB.Net) that are just C# with a VB look.

VB6 has just risen to be the sixth most popular language in the April 2014 Tiobe index, despite being 16 years old.

There is a vote to bring back an updated version of VB6 at:

http://visualstudio.uservoice.com/forums/121579-visual-studio/suggestions/3440221-bring-back-classic-visual-basic-an-improved-versi

 

 
majenkins
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majenkins,
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 3:16:06 PM
Re: Visual BASIC
Very well said.
jgherbert
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jgherbert,
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 3:15:01 PM
Re: Visual BASIC
Perhaps Dijkstra needed to learn the Perl maxim that TMTOWTDI (There's More Than One Way To Do It). I agree - the absence of GOTO does not mean it's good code. And there are situations where GOTO really is the only smart way out of a particular situation.

Like so many "rules" they really should be "guides", not hard and fast inflexible laws that don't take into account each situation on its own merits.
majenkins
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majenkins,
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 3:02:38 PM
Re: Visual BASIC
I will concur he was at least a little bit disturbed. This comment is not the only dumb one he made and you are right he hated the command GOTO. The problem for me with him and others was that they acted like GOTO was the enemy and it wasn't and isn't. It is possible to write well structured programs with GOTOs and it is possible to write poorly structured ones without a single GOTO in them. Any subroutine or function call is just a GOTO spelled differently that knows how to come back to where it came from. BTW I have never felt any need to cut Dijkstra any slack, he was too a arrogant for my taste. “If you don’t write the way I say then you are an idiot”, not really a quote just an idea of how he liked to talk, kind of like the can’t teach then comment. I guess it also goes back to the COBOL instructor I had that like Dijkstra seemed to think that all you had to do was eliminate GOTO and your program was better. Over the many years in this business I have seen some really hard to maintain programs that followed all of Dijkstra’s ideas for writing good programs. OK, thanks for the opportunity to vent on an old pet peeve.
jgherbert
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jgherbert,
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 2:48:53 PM
Re: Visual BASIC
Don't hold back; tell us how you really feel about him :) I'm guessing that his comment came off the back of his hatred of GOTO statements, and undoubtedly noted their overuse in BASIC. Whether one likes the way he said it, there is some truth to the fact that it's necessary to unlearn some BASIC habits when moving to other languages. Well, except Perl perhaps.

Meanwhile, wikipedia says Dijkstra was a fan of ALGOL 60, so I think we should extend the poor guy a little slack. He was clearly a little bit disturbed.
majenkins
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majenkins,
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 2:39:26 PM
Re: Visual BASIC
Dijkstra was always such a stuck up snob I am not surprised to find him making such a stupid comment. My feeling is if he had trouble teaching good programming techniques to people exposed to BASIC then perhaps it was an issue with the teacher not the students.
jhorstman917
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jhorstman917,
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.
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