BASIC Computer Language’s 50th Birthday

This morning I heard a NPR radio story about the BASIC computer language’s 50th year celebration.  Yesterday, Dartmouth College celebrated by hosting a BASIC @ 50: The Future of Computing panel discussion.

Wow!  When I learned to program in BASIC around 1974-75, BASIC was not even a teenager yet.  I’m a few years older than BASIC, but I am still amazed at the journey from teletype machines to smartphones.

BASIC stands for Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.  This computer language was developed with the intent to be able to program remotely on a teletype, via dial-up to a Time Sharing computer.  BASIC was developed by two Dartmouth College professors, John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz.  Prior to the development of BASIC, Professor Kurtz would have to drive 125 miles to Boston to use a computer at MIT.  The turnaround times could be a week or two, and if you made programming error(s), you could lose weeks of time.  Also, BASIC did not require the use of punch cards.

The professors also wanted to allow people from other academic disciplines to be able to use computers besides the mathematicians and computer folks.

In the NPR broadcast, Dartmouth Professor Dan Rockmore recalled writing a poker game in BASIC.  When I was in high school, my parents celebrated their anniversary with a trip to Las Vegas.  They brought back a dice game, that was a mimic of a slot machine.  Based on the game instructions (my system requirements), I programmed a simple Slot Machine game in BASIC.  Back then everything was text (no images, non-visual).  So I had to print out the fruity names, “Cherry”, “Lemon”, “Orange” on the roll of teletype paper (sorry no Photoshop images or clip art GIF files back then).  But I was able to make the teletype’s “Bell” ring, “ding, ding, ding, …”, when you had a good combination of matching fruit.  I even kept track of how much virtual money you still had, and how much you won or lost on each play.  As the teletype printed out the Slot Machine fruit names, it would bounce slightly across the floor whenever the carriage return went back to the left.

Today the closest thing a smartphone can do is “vibrate”.  But smartphones will never be as loud as a teletype!

BASIC went on to be ported to minicomputers and microcomputers (personal computers).  Microsoft’s Visual Basic was influenced by the BASIC language.

Happy Birthday BASIC!


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