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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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User Rank: Strategist
4/30/2014 | 12:57:07 PM
Memories of a Simpler Time
I learned BASIC way back in 1978 as a freshman in college. It laid the foundation for learning more complex programming languages, such as COBOL and Assembler Language.

I wrote BASIC programs both for business and for pleasure. The most ambitious program I ever wrote for pleasure was a personal telephone book on my TRS-80 "microcomputer". You would enter the name of the person whose number you needed to find. It would do a sequential search across the cassette-based storage medium for the number, and display it on an on-screen form. Honestly, it was quicker to just look it up in a paper-based phone book! But, it looked really cool!

For business, I wrote a "database" that allows engineers in the company I worked for at the time to quickly look up parts for electronic equipment. At least it used 5.25" floppy disks for storage. I received a merit citation for my efforts.

Happy 50th Anniversary BASIC!!!! You're just four (4) years younger than I am!!!!

Tom P
Tom P,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 12:12:47 PM
BASIC lead to my career
I was 16 and got a summer job where they asked me to figure out this brand-new Cromemco System III microcomputer.  It came with an early DOS and I had to figure everything out, including self-taught BASIC.  I named her Sally.  After I'd made a few programs such as a valve-sizeing tool, my boss told me to move on and learn FORTRAN on it - which I did to build more complex programs.  I wrote in both languages for two years in that part-time job after school and summers.

I got to college two years later and the first engineering flunk-out class was: FORTRAN.  Using punch cards.  Once the professor realized that I already knew it, I passed the final with my A less than 3 weeks into the semester.  The class started with about 250 people and had about 68 by the end of the semester.  Now, I've spent my career in the online/internet world and it all started when I learned BASIC.
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 12:02:21 PM
I remember INFOBasic, too
In days of yore, I learned not only BASIC, but InfoBasic, as well, to write subroutines for a 4GL application generator for Prime minicomputers. Now everyone knows exactly how long I've been in this industry. Ha...
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 12:00:18 PM
Commodore BASIC
Another memory: My crowning achievement in BASIC at the age of 11 or thereabouts, was creating a networked chat program of sorts allowing two Commodore64 users to communicate in (not quite) real time. Since the C64s weren't networked as such, I used the only connection they had - shared access to a dual floppy drive (with 8 C64s plugged into a VIC-Switch or something very similar so they could all access it). The program was loaded from a floppy, and that floppy was then used to exchange data between the two computers.

It wasn't highly complex, but at the time it was amazing for the people who got to try it out and realize that comptuers could talk to one another across the computer lab! And all this in the nasty, nasty, Commodore BASIC (did they still call it PET BASIC?). 

Still, proof again of how simple BASIC was to program.

TT Millard
TT Millard,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 11:54:44 AM
I miss my Tandy and Amiga
Oh, do I remember BASIC.  Our math teacher in HS was tasked with the daunting challenge of attempting to teach programming, since we all know if you know math, you must be a natural programmer.  A class of networked Tandy computers, and a few awe inspired teenagers who knew poke and peek commands was a deadly combination!

I remember starting every program with gosub.. just because!  I loved spagetti code.  I called my creations "Coding Chaos".  The teacher graded my mess on the merits of it's output, since she had no clue what I had actually written.

On the side, we'd huddle in the library 'computer closet'. Literally, it was a 6 x 6 room with a small desk, chair and one Radio Shack Tandy computer.  They stuck a windowed door on the mini office so people could peer in at us (and so it wouldn't feel exactly like a closet) while we worked our magic. 

We wrote a 'pick your own adventure' game. Remember those? "Go West. Go East. Your in a large room.  There's a MASSIVE DRAGON!  There is a shiny key. What would you like to do next?"

I remember in college (dating myself of course) where i would go through computer mags and extract basic code that I would have to translate sligtly for my state of the art Commodore Amiga.  I created a strategy game where my friends could have raging ship battles that spanned the unniverse as they attempted to dominate and control distant planets (ok, it was a ten by ten grid and the planets were numbers, and the battles were a random number generator to see who lost the most ships... but we could dream).  Of course, I programmed in a few cheat codes of my own.  They never did understand how I won so much.

Thanks for jarring some very fond memories!
IW Pick
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 11:54:37 AM
BASIC Memories
I learned BASIC in college in 1973 in the only course I took in the Engineering School (I was a Political Science major). We had the luxury of working on a GE Mini via teletype keyboards with punch tape. At least we didn't have to cart around cards but had to watch out for badly punched holes. Our class project was computing the minimum and maximum speeds an Evel Knievel wannabe had to drive his motorcycle in order to jump from the top of the Physics building to the top of the Engineering Building without failing short or running off the far edge. I enjoyed the he-- out of that course and it ultimately changed my life.

I ended up going back to school in the early 80's when if you had a programming certificate and could spell BASIC you could get a job. I actually 'graduated' and turned around to teach PC-BASIC in the same school for a year. Then I went to work at a software house that wrote a networked Maintenance Management and Spare Parts Inventory package using a home-grown database and pre-GUI windowing interface.
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 11:48:53 AM
Visual BASIC
I program - just - in Visual BASIC, from time to time. I find it hard to reconcile what I thought I knew as BASIC with what VB.Net (for example) has become. I guess that's progress, because BASIC has morphed drastically over the years as VisualBASIC developed to accomodate the graphical elements and, perhaps most critically, stopped being a linear interpreted language and became an event-driven compiled language.

That said, I love that I can create a simple windows executable in VisualBASIC without needing to worry about malloc()s and similar; it has all of the "couldn't care less" automatic memory management that I love so much about BASIC and languages like Perl, while allowing you to generate distributable .EXE files all the same. Can't argue with that. I do wonder whether the original inventors of BASIC - if they had been living in the jungle in the interim - would look at VisualBASIC and recognize it as having its roots in their creation or not.
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 11:37:36 AM
BASIC and Assembler
When I was young, I had an Acorn BBC Micro, Model B.


This booted natively into a BBC BASIC environment (BASIC was stored on a ROM). BBC BASIC was relatively easy to use, as most BASICs tended to be, but its coolest feature for programmers was that you could easily embed assembler inline in your BASIC program. What that meant was that in the situation Thomas describes where BASIC just ain't fast enough to do some operations, you could focus your time on writing just the time-critical parts in 6502 Assembler, but write the rest in BASIC. This was used a lot in those games you typed in for hours from magazines, as you could achieve an awful lot with that 6502 assembler keeping the speed up.

I had many hours of fun writing useless programs on in BASIC. And when I moved to PC, there was a version of BBC BASIC available there too, which made things much simpler for me! 
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 11:18:49 AM
Re: Nice trip down memory lane
I learned Fortran in college but on the last day of my senior year, one of the professors showed me Basic.  We had been punching cards and sending our programs off to be run.  A few days later we would get to see the results.  Being able to watch Basic programs run and then change them on the fly was magical.

I ended up as a hardware engineer but during the course of time, I wrote many thousands of lines of Basic or similar code.  It opened a door that I never thought existed.

IW Pick
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 10:57:16 AM
Re: I Am Grateful For Having Learned BASIC From Dr. Kemeny
I remember sitting in the Kiewit Computer Center at a massive typewriter like thing. I would type in code onto a screen then run a compiler to see if it worked. Mostly, it didn't. I was an English Lit major, not a computer science geek. As an undergraduate I was allocated 2K of storage. By today's standards that is size of a period in a Word document. LOL. I don't remember any specific projects, but I did learn logical flow, Boolean logic, loops, if-then conditionals, and so forth. We stored our programs on paper tape with punch holes. Some people used Holerwith cards (do not fold, spindle, or mutlilate LOL). The mainframe was set up for distributed processing so many people could work at the same time. I think my wrist watch has more cpu power than that building-sized machine. Every undergradute was required to take one course in programming. Kemeny was prescient about the need to understand and be comfortable with technology. I remember a conference at the College when a bunch of guys showed up with boxes. One guy told me they were computers. I said, "No way!" He said, "Yep. In ten years, these will be as ubiquitous as televisions." "You're nuts," I said. Turns out he was about 20 years off, but still absolutely correct.
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