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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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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.

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