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Intelligent Machines

Back to BASIC

Two mathematicians set out to make programming easy-and transformed computing.

I n the 1960s, most people who wanted to use computers submitted programs on punch cards to a central facility. An operator fed a batch of cards into a mainframe; users then had to wait 24 hours for a result. In 1963, Dartmouth College mathematicians John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz were planning a new campus computer system. Guessing that the prospect of long waits would keep students at bay, the duo devised a time-sharing system to give many students simultaneous access-and the first user-friendly programming language to go along with it. They called their new language BASIC, for Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.

Most existing computer languages, like Fortran, were crafted for engineers. Kemeny felt they were too difficult for the average person to learn, requiring months of training before a user could write an effective program. So he and Kurtz set out to create a general-purpose language that beginners could learn and start using almost immediately. Their overriding idea was to make computer programming accessible to virtually anyone. “No matter how powerful the language became,” wrote Kemeny in the 1985 book Back to BASIC, “we never forgot the needs of beginners.”

The pair started with elements of Fortran and ALGOL, a language used primarily by scientists. But they also added original features, such as line numbers, which made it easier to pinpoint and correct errors. By May 1964, both BASIC and the time-sharing system were operational. The original language had only 14 commands, and they soon found that students could begin programming after only two BASIC lessons.

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Kemeny and Kurtz didn’t copyright or patent their language. As a result, various versions of BASIC later became standard on early personal computers. The professors also continued to develop their original code; in 1983 they released the much-expanded True BASIC. Although huge advances in computer languages
followed, BASIC lives on: this year  Microsoft, whose first product was a version of BASIC for the Altair 8800 computer in 1975, will release Visual Basic .Net, a powerful cousin of BASIC updated for next-generation Web applications.

Despite this 37-year odyssey, a now retired Kurtz feels BASIC’s user-friendly legacy has faded: “Sorry to say, but I don’t think we had much effect.” But many of today’s programmers got their first exposure to computer languages through easy-to-learn BASIC-and one of them may already be working on the next revolution.

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