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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
5/2/2014 | 12:09:10 PM
Baseball Cards
I was 14 (1987) and re-coded a baseball card database from a produce inventory mgmt BASIC listing I found in Antic Magazine.  It was great until I got to the 128K threshold of my Atari 130XE.  After all db field and code optimizations, I was able to store 610 max of then current and retired players, their stats/profile, birthday, and which cards of theirs I owned and how many.  It only took 5 minutes to install, and only 2 minutes to conduct a search!
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2014 | 11:14:41 AM
TI 99 Even Before Standard Keyboard
I remember the first thing out of the box with my TI 99... got a book on BASIC with the computer, new cassett recorder and stayed up for 32 hours trying to figure it out.  Actually got pretty good at basic and built several small business utility programs I used at my office... Wow my first aps.  Did write one major program that was eventually purchased by a company that turned it into a working DOS based program that could be used to calculate a pretty accurate retirement income estimate for its HR department.  They paid me $50 for the code... I think that was 1981. Now I build websites for a living... that was a long, long time ago. (Still have the TI and the old rolled paper printer, cassett player died in about 1982.)
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2014 | 11:03:27 AM
Grateful for having learned it...
We used Gary Aiken's (Dartmouth) Xeroxed, perhaps 25-page user manual, in batch mode via punch cards on a GE-415 mainframe.  Our engineering class at Union got the manual, was told to learn it in two weeks, and oh -- by the way -- had term projects due using computational methods to solve some engineering problem 3 weeks after that.

So in that context it was just another tool, not the world in itself, pervasive technology, that IT and computer science have become.  It was simply: "... you're an engineer, you've got problems; maybe you can compute a solution; here's something that computes solutions if you tell it how."  Can you imagine learning BASIC in one night?

And then spending the rest of the year "in the Computer Center?" Before some of us discovered the TIME= statement, we had a 3-minute processing limit. Well, you know what happened to batch processing after that...
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2014 | 11:02:23 AM
Both personal and professional
I programmed the Parker Brothers game Black Box on my TRS-80.

I convinced my employer that a Canon BX-3 "Programmable Calculator" would be a good start in computerization, and I received several cash awards in recognition of programs I wrote for it.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2014 | 11:01:00 AM
Basic as part of Early Career
In 1970, I was part of the Academic Services Staff at State University of New York Albany (SUNYA ) working with the team that developed Real Time Basic (timesharing version) for the UNIVAC system that was done in strong coordination with Darmouth. Among my first duties was the conversion of the Dartmouth Basic Library to the SUNYA variant. I then added many new programs for use for use within the Academic community, especially in the area of extended arithmetic, statistics and accounting/financial computing. I was also part of the NSF team that determined the syntax and mechanisms for adding graphics language extensions to include the development of example programs. Later (1977-1980) I was part of the test and quality team for the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) RSTS/E which used BASIC-PLUS as its primary development language. There were multiple test programs and system unilities that were written. I continue to this day, through the progression on apple and PC from gwbasic to todays use of visual basic.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2014 | 10:49:46 AM
SmartBasic on the ColecoVision Adam
While I always had an interest in computers my learning really started with a ColecoVision Adam computer.  While it was nothign like dealing with punch cards I'm still amazed at how much time I spent waiting for programs to load from a tape drive.  I wish I still had that much paitience!  At least it was much faster and more reliable than the standard auido tape player and tape setup of our older Timex Cinclair 1000.  Anyway, I spent countless hours learning and programming with SmartBASIC on the Adam.  I made small programs for myself, some of which were actually practical.  It was great fun and I learned a lot about computers and programming concepts in general.

Now, about 25 years later, I'm still enjoying computers.  As a system administrator my programming is mostly limited to creating and modifiing scripts but it all really started with SmartBasic on the ColecoVision Adam!
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2014 | 10:43:29 AM
Writing BASIC from magazines
I can remember getting a copy of several computer magazines and typing in the programs that were in the back of them. I can still remember the frustration at typos that were in the programs and having to troubleshoot them.

I used to spend all hours of the night and day (after school) writing my own programs. It was a great time.
Charlie Babcock
Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
5/1/2014 | 8:23:54 PM
Basic had flaws...so name a language that doesn't
The GOTO command in Basic can b e criticized, but some feature of any language can be criticized. JavaScript isn't strongly typed -- data types can be used that are only loosely defined and the system, to its author's regret, accepts them -- so it can be criticized for that. Java is strongly typed -- and it's criticized for that.
User Rank: Ninja
5/1/2014 | 6:41:16 PM
Commodore BASIC V2!
I started with BASIC on the C64 (made in Western Germany and still running fine) and the nice thing was it was right there. The 64 didn't know booting up or getting files ready, even the tablets these days are horribly slow starting up. On the 64 it was much easier than one the IIe whereyou first had to mount the floppy and then load the interpreter just to find that pretty much all memory was used up. Why did Apple not add a hardware interpreter like the Commodore folks? They could have used the same dang chip given that the hardware was similar.

Anyhow, I wrote several programs, collaborated with friends on projects, and spent endless hours typing code in from magazines and books, but programming is just such an incredibly tedious piece of work. Even today you need to decalre all kinds of stuff and wade through name spaces and objects just to get something to show up on screen. Still, BASIC allowed even me the then still barely computer literate to make the bread box do something.

And yes, the discussion about GOTO vs GOSUB was going on back then as well. GOSUB forced one to code more modular, but especially with error handling a GOTO was reasonable to use. Everything crashed and burned and the last thing that can be done is show a message. What is the point to go back to where I came from if all that can be done in the end is execute END? Sure, code can be written without GOTO, but it might just take more code and checking things twice. What is the benefit of that?

I did eventually come to quite some proficiency in VB6. The encouraging thing with BASIC is that you do not need much code to accomplish something. With a handful of codewords you can craft decent applications unlike Java where after 500 lines of nonsensical, but necessary code you can finally print a scrappy "Hello World!" on screen. I agree, with VB.NET all that ease went out the window. Anything .NET is just unnecessarily complicated and bloated.

I finally landed at PHP that has many of the same advantages of BASIC. No wonder why so many Internet startups still use it. Neither BASIC nor PHP may have great reputation, but those are languages that allow folks to accomplish something without ripping their hair out. It simply highlights the little fun that programming generates.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/1/2014 | 9:55:45 AM
Basic experience
I worked for Honeywell, in early 70's they aquired GE and I was amazed by timesharing Basic.  Immediate feedback to programming instead of waiting hours for card deck to compile, what a concept.  To the best of my knowledge the first interpretive language and even the basic compilers were very fast.  Most all of the mini-computers that followed used a form of business basic as the primary programming language. 

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