BASIC Turns 50: A Love/Hate Story

We look back on BASIC's 50 years of attracting -- and repelling -- new programmers.

This month, BASIC celebrates an anniversary reached by very few languages: 50 years of continual use. During that long career, whose highlights mostly occurred before the age of 25, it has beckoned millions to the world of programming, most of whom immediately forsook the language for more robust alternatives.

It's difficult to imagine the computing world in 1964. There were no PCs, nor even minicomputers, and networking was for all practical purposes nonexistent. Programming was done on mainframes that could support remote teletype machines over telephone lines. Programs were stored on decks of punched cards, or loops of very carefully handled paper tape. In this rather challenging environment, two Dartmouth professors, John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, came up with the idea to create a simple, high-level language to teach programming.

They called the toy language BASIC, which seems fitting — although the term was an acronym for Beginner's All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. Today, I believe most people would be comfortable only with the B in the acronym. BASIC was certainly not all-purpose. I expect that Kemeny and Kurtz might have been tempted to use the modern term "language," rather than "symbolic instruction code," but  BAL was already an acronym in use on mainframes (Basic Assembly Language — where 'basic' retains its natural meaning).

Read the rest of this article on Dr. Dobb's.