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Those Were the Days: BASIC Turns 50

Those Were the Days: BASIC Turns 50
By Barry Levine

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BASIC was a key enabler of what we think of today as personal computing. Before BASIC and the personal computing revolution, computing was largely pursued by guys in white lab coats with pocket protectors. The 50th anniversaries of BASIC and the IBM mainframe represent bookends for the evolution of modern computing, said analyst Charles King.
 


The classic programming language BASIC will be 50 years old on Thursday. But, like many 50-year-olds, it finds itself in a world very different from the one that existed when it was born.

BASIC was developed in Hanover, New Hampshire in 1964 by Dartmouth College professors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz who created it to help students learn computing. It flourished as the first wave of personal computers rolled out -- Apple II, the IBM PC, Commodore 64, Atari 800, and Radio Shack TRS-80. The name stands for Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.

One of the reasons BASIC attained such popularity is that it became a key way for users to modify and add functionality to their personal computers without changing the physical machine, something that had not been available to consumers previously. Even though computers at that time meant giant machines and punch cards, Kemeny and Kurtz believed that a knowledge of computing was part of a liberal education.

Darsimco, DOPE and Demos

The BASIC language was built on the experience of earlier attempts, including Darsimco (Dartmouth Simplified Code) and DOPE (Dartmouth Oversimplified Programming Experiment). The professors also developed Dartmouth's time-sharing system, which allowed more than one person to work on a computer at a time.

At Dartmouth, the birthday is being celebrated Wednesday with a day of events that include the screening of a documentary, demonstrations of innovative computing projects currently at the school, and a panel discussion on the future of computing.

In a 1964 open letter, Kurtz said the purpose of creating BASIC was "to give students a simple programming language that was easy to learn." He noted that this made it appealing to non-students as well, since Fortran and Algol, the official programming languages at the time, were designed for professionals.

The free version was subsequently released in commercial versions, which, Kurtz noted, were built with "operating system-dependent instructions and features." Microsoft BASIC has been the most popular, followed by the original, True BASIC. Microsoft's very first product was an interpreter that ran BASIC on the MITS Altair 8800, and in 1981 IBM bought Microsoft BASIC for its new PC line.

IBM's Anniversary

The Dartmouth teachers helped create the True BASIC commercial company in 1983, and their language conformed to the American National Standards Institute standard.

Kurtz pointed out that no other programming language, with the same source code, has run on as on many operating systems as True BASIC -- DOS, Mac, Amiga, Atari, Windows, OS2 and several flavors of Unix.

Over the years, it has evolved at Microsoft into Microsoft Visual Basic, now one of the half-dozen most popular programming languages.

Charles King, an analyst with industry research firm Pund-IT, told us that BASIC was a key "enabler of what we think of today as personal computing." He recalled that before BASIC and the personal computing revolution, computing "was largely pursued by guys in white lab coats with pocket protectors."

King also noted that, just a few weeks ago, there was the 50th anniversary of the IBM mainframe. The two anniversaries, he noted, represent bookends for the evolution of modern computing.
 

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