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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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Bring back VB6 programming
Bring back VB6 programming,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/29/2015 | 7:49:11 AM
VB6 programming in Windows 10
Microsoft have just announced about Windows 10...

"And yes, everyone's favorite VB6 Runtime will continue to work, too."


VB6 programming will still work under Windows 10.


Basic will last another 50 years !

User Rank: Strategist
5/11/2014 | 8:47:34 AM
Vote for VB6 Programming
VB6   http://visualstudio.uservoice.com/forums/121579-visual-studio/suggestions/3440221-bring-back-classic-visual-basic-an-improved-versi



User Rank: Strategist
5/11/2014 | 8:35:20 AM
VB6 Programming
VB6 has risen to #5 in the May 2014 Tiobe index of programming popularity.

It is now the leading Microsoft language


Li Tan
Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
5/4/2014 | 4:06:19 AM
Re: Basic as part of Early Career
It's so interesting to recall those days when we fight with green screen and write program in BASIC. It's simple but very systematic. I studied BASIC in my primary school. When I came to work in 1999, C++ and Java are already the main stream. But I do love BASIC - by facilitating it, I grasped the fundamentals of programming.
[email protected],
User Rank: Apprentice
5/3/2014 | 5:46:04 PM
Re: Basic as part of Early Career
In 1970 I returned from the military, having never seen a computer, and got a job in a research lab at TI and the key activity was making a machine that that used laser light to measure the thickness of films on silicon slices. It was a mechanical and electronic marvel. It was operated by a HP computer that had 12K 12 bit words and ran basic for software. We spent an incredible amount or time trying to make the software smaller. It required 2 grown men to lift the rack mounted power supply and two men to lift the core memory box that had those 12K 12 bit words. My Android phone has more capabilities than that 6-ft tall rack that housed this system. In our spare time, we wrote programs for fun in BASIC. I am retired and have not written code in many years, but if I had to do that I would be tempted to try to use BASIC!. 

User Rank: Strategist
5/2/2014 | 4:16:08 PM
Re: Nice trip down memory lane
Memory Lane is right! I learned assembler, Fortran and then BASIC in the '60s & '70s - first on mainframes and then minis.   Picked up an Apple ][ and used Basic there too.  When the IBM PC and networking came along, I developed an international business system which eventually was translated into many languages and implemented all over the world.

I have to chuckle a bit now looking back at the acronym since the language is anything but for beginners IMO. It has been extended and enhanced so extensively that there's not much that you can't do with it...  

Over the course of my career, Basic enabled me to travel, live and work with people in over 60 countries all over the world.  I shared dinner and drinks with presidents and CIOs of some of the biggest corporations in the world (Exxon, GE, Amazon, Arco, Mobil, Oracle, Schwab, etc.), had pizza with Egyptians overlooking the Nile, walked the streets of Moscow at midnight, feasted on pancake breakfasts during Calgary Stampede, drifted on the canals of Venice, sampled the tapas bars in Madrid, rode the cable car to dinner in Bogata, visited the Sydney Opera House, kicked a little sand in Bali, and experienced more than I ever would have guessed as a youth.  All while implementing those systems...written in Basic. 

Basic...been very, very good to me...!!

User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2014 | 3:55:47 PM
Rapid development with BASIC
In India, back in 1986, I was teaching some business executives about what computers can do and how they can be used to improve their business.  Initially it was going to be just a slide presentation with material printed out from the IBM PC that we were using in the class.  We had not planned on showing any hands on application in the 2-day class but I decided to develop a demonstration program as an after thought to show how easily someone could develop useful applications.  Took me about 2 hours to knock out a simple program that simulated tracking cricket scores and displaying them in tabular format thanks to BASIC.  What made it more interesting was the ease with which the execs with no prior computer knowledge could understand the BASIC program and suggest improvements and see the changes made on the fly with immediate results. 
User Rank: Strategist
5/2/2014 | 3:36:29 PM
Life before objects
I first learned Fortran on a Univac mainframe and punch cards, and was exposed to BASIC on the TRS-80 Model 1.  It was love at first byte.  I can't even guess how many hours I spend in front of  a screen-full of BASIC, squeezing out spaces and comments to fit just a litte more into the 4, and then 16, and finally 32K of RAM.  I made money programming in BASIC from the late '70s until the mid 80s, and though I took up other languages, I still dabbled with it until VB came out.

Owing to my formative experience, I find object-oriented programming distasteful, and swore after fiddling with VB and C++ never to instantiate anything.  I got out of programming (save a little shell and AWK) and so far, I'm a man of my word!
6937th IT
6937th IT,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2014 | 3:19:15 PM
Early Basic use in the Navy Reserve
Joined the Navy, early 80's. I reported to an Admiral's Staff in Seattle. I was in charge of manpower billits for a five state area. (In the Navy Reserve, there had to be an open billet you would fill, in order to be paid) Once I understood the spreadsheets, I understood the system. A few weeks later a new program was presented to me.  "Since you use computer programing, we want you to put all of our manpower data on the computer",  ( I had three classes, including basic) I was walked to my new office(read closet) and was informed "here is everthing you need. When can we expect printed manpower listings?" My equipment was painted olive green and rust. I had a keyboard, printer, small table with phone(no dial) and one box of green stripe. When I picked up the phone, I was connectd to the "national programe" in New Orleans. The short version, was this was an experiment to see if a simple data capture system would work, though out the navy reserve. I was told to develope a basic program and be ready to send all the manpower info via a phone to N.O.. The system worked, but the dial up took 16 seconds per number/letter to transmit!  I did visit each Naval Reserve Center in our five state area, with my portable modum in a briefcase.  The experiment proved data could be gathered via a simple system and could be availble for time saving processing.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2014 | 2:38:37 PM
BASIC in the beginning
Earliest use of BASIC was Rocky Mountain Basic on a Tectronix 4051 with 700x1000 resolution in the Navy. but only 32K of ram.  The screen was raster based and had to be flashed to remove or clear it.  First program was for determining Biorythms, but eventually created a computer assisted drafting program that could draw really detailed ships drawings.  The printer actually read the raster on the screen and flash printed to light sensitive paper.  It was many years before anything with that level of graphics was available for home use.  In the beginning character based graphics was as good as it got.

First home computer was a Sinclair before Timex bought them.  And started real early with CP/M, the predecessor to MS-DOS http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DOS.  I was involved with DOS since 1.0 and Windows since 1.0 on green screens because few had color monitors at the time. 
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