When BASIC Was Young: Great Memories - InformationWeek

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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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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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