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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: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 2:34:13 PM
When BASIC and I were young
I first used BASIC while working on my MBA at USC in the early '70s. The terminals were teletype machines and the programs were 'saved' on paper tape which you had to be careful not to fold, spindle or mutilate. The first few minutes of every session were spent making sure your program read back in correctly and making corrections if it didn't. In the '80s I wrote some BASIC programs on an Apple IIe for personal use. Fast forward to the '90s and I was teaching Visual Basic at Cal Poly Pomona being one day ahead of the students for the first quarter. While it wasn't your father's BASIC it came back pretty quickly.
IW Pick
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 2:20:29 PM
From BASIC to Assembly
I was introduced to BASIC on a WANG PS2 system in 1979.  Along with a manual that taught how to program "What Animal am I?", hundreds of hours were spent in front of a small CRT, glowing green letters, and countless cups of coffee.  BASIC was my gateway drug into coding assembly on the Commodore 64.  The Transactor magazine was the official prop-head rag for serious Commodore enthusiasts.  Imagine doing virtual machines (4 of them!) on a system with 64K of memory.

I posted the first (to my knowledge) BASIC version of "Battleship" on Compuserve back in 1984 and it was a huge hit.  It had the highest download rate of any program at that time (which was probably around 100 a day - these were dial-up days, folks).

In short, BASIC began my love affair with computers.  Now, after 35 years in IT, I guess it's fair to say I owe it all to BASIC.
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 2:20:01 PM
BASIC was my first language
I was fortunate enough to be exposed to BASIC back in 1972 when my High School offered it as a beginners Computer Science course. We punched out our BASIC programs onto papertape on an old Telex terminal and then took our program to another terminal where we could dial-up Princeton University's mainframe at 110 baud and load our program into memory and execute. We were not allowed disk storage so the papertape was everything. You could tell who the geeks were by the rolls of papertape in their pockets. If we wanted to move on, the next semester were could take Fortran and keypunch our programs to run on the school's IBM 360. Lots of memories of those times.
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 1:56:14 PM
Re: I miss my Tandy and Amiga
@TTMillard: "I remember starting every program with gosub.. just because!  I loved spegetti 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."

I do hope you graduated to the obfuscated C and perl contests in later life? It sounds like you gave yourself the perfect grounding for it. 


"I remember in college (dating myself of course)"

At first I read this to mean that at college, being a computer nerd, you were of course unable to get a date. Second time of reading, I realized - I assume - that you meant that this gave an idea as to your age! Oops :)


User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 1:52:40 PM
Re: Visual BASIC
Nice article, Andrew - thanks for linking to it. I loved the Dijkstra quote in particular ;-) Thankfully I grew up (largely) with BBC BASIC which at least allowed procedures and functions in addition to GOSUB, so I got used to working that way rather than looping and using GOTO all over the place.

The link between the original BASIC and VB.Net is surely tenuous at best. The closest thing I can think is that neither uses a semicolon at the end of the line - but that's hardly a unique identifier.

I wonder how one defines what should be call BASIC? That is, what is it about VB.Net that makes it BASIC? Or even the earlier VB incarnations? At what point in the natural development/progression of a language do we stop and say "hey, this is something entirely new"?

User Rank: Author
4/30/2014 | 1:49:46 PM
Re: Nice trip down memory lane
Onejbsmith, thanks for sharing your pictures. I am sure others will enjoy them, too.
Andrew Binstock
Andrew Binstock,
User Rank: Author
4/30/2014 | 1:44:14 PM
Re: Visual BASIC
Agreed. In my own somewhat less melancholic retrospective on BASIC's first 50 years, I suggest that VB is not a real descendant of original BASIC. Microsoft has revved the language and added so many features, that you can only see faint echoes of the original language. Certainly, VB cannot compile any of the original BASIC. Whereas COBOL compilers (and I believe FORTRAN compilers too) can compile early programs in the language, with only minor tweaks.

One could argue that C++ is closer to C, than VB is to BASIC.
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 1:33:51 PM
BASIC is still Around!
  Amazingly, the stuff is still around and people are using derivitives of of it. There is a VB .net and all.


I remember the firs MS Visual BASIC and man, what a mess/pain that was for developing graphics. never played with the ,net stuff, hopefully it is a lot better. Getting BASIC to provide graphics based apps is one heck-ova hack.
IW Pick
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 1:01:40 PM
Re: Nice trip down memory lane
First time I saw Basic was in '66. I didn't know it the time, but Keremy and Kurtz were likely on the other end of the line. I was in high school in New Hampshire and we had a time-sharing terminal linked to Dartmouth's mainframe. (The pictures below are of the very terminal and a BASIC program for it). I didn't get the concept at the time, though, having been recently indoctrinated in inequalities, upon seeing  "x=x+1", I thought, "No. x does NOT equal x+1".

Fast forward 10 years, and as a newly-hired actuarial student for a Georgia insurance company, I was handed a spiral-bound booklet describing the Basic language and wound up using it daily mostly to do actuarial calculations.

Fast forward another 10 years and I was earning my living writing apps in compiled Basic, which morphed into what eventually became VB.NET. For a while Basic (Visual Basic) was the sanest way to create Windows apps which was what made it wildly popular at the time. 


BASIC Time-sharing Terminal Circa 1966

BASIC Program circa 1966


User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2014 | 1:01:39 PM
BASIC Taught me critical thinking and problem solving
I wrote my first BASIC program when I was 6 years old on a Commodore 64 that my uncle had bought for me. Well it was more like copy from the back of the user manual that came with the machine, but it was my first experience with it. I spent hours hunting and pecking over the keyboard, making sure that every keystroke was complete and correct.

After I was done and ran the program, I had a red ball bouncing back and forth acrossed my screen. LAter that night, my mother turned of the computer while I slept, and thus erased my program. I was frustrated at that and began retyping the program in, making alterations even at that young of an age. My mother made sure to not turn it off this day, and when I was done, I had 3 balls bouncing each a different color.

Going into middle school I had a comp sci teacher who was teaching us AppleII BASIC and as one of the students who loved to tinjhker with programs and hungered for more knowledge about computers, a few friends and I would find sometimes short but always terse one-line basic programs in the computing magazines of the day. They were very archaic and we would rewrite them into a more readable format, and then tweak them further back into one-liner programs.

This led to my critical thiniking and problem solving indoctrination. In a recent article there has been mention that todays acedemia doesn't teach problem solving. Perhaps they should look towards a simple language like BASIC to help teach these fundamentals. I know I am crossing into another topic, but I know that it helped me in my career that I have enjoyed now for over 15 years professionally.

I owe alot to my Comp Sci teacher and to the founders/creators of BASIC. Thank you sirs! My life might have been so different without BASIC. PErhaps all of ours would have been, even if we never programmed.
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