Category Archives: Computer History

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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Next Meeting: March 22, Video and Discussion

Saturday, March 22, 2014, 1-3PM
Rutland Free Library, Fox Room (upstairs)
10 Court Street, Rutland, VT

We will show a video presentation by author Douglas Rushkoff, followed by a discussion.  The presentation is based on Rushkoff’s book “Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age“.

I just finished reading this interesting book.  You don’t need to read his book beforehand (unless you want to).   Just come and enjoy the video.  But if you are interested, the book’s ISBN# is 978-1593764265 (152 pages).

Many of us use smartphones, tablet computers and laptops.  There is more to “computer literacy” than knowing which buttons to press, where to click, or an app’s features.  Mr. Rushkoff is not advocating that we all become computer programmers.  We certainly don’t need to be mechanics to drive a car.  Instead, Mr. Rushkoff makes the distinction between “driving the car” versus merely being a “passenger”.  That analogy can be applied to our use of technology.

Mr. Rushkoff also compares our advancements in technology to past inventions like the written word and the printing press.  He points out how the larger population seems to be one “version” behind in how we use and adapt these advancements.  In other words, we don’t always use them to their full potential.

Rushkoff’s final command and chapter title is “Program or Be Programmed”.  The word “command” (instead of Commandment), is a play on the word used by computer programmers, as in submitting commands to run our computers (as some of you did in the recent “Hour of Code” event).

All ages welcome.  Hope to see you on March 22nd.

Slideshow: Some Bits and Bytes of Computer History

Wow, time sure does fly, and computers keep getting faster and smaller!  It has been 40 years since I wrote my first computer program, in the BASIC computer language.  I took the only computer class available at my high school back then.

Teletype machine

I learned to program on one of these 40 years ago!

We used a Teletype machine.  While it did not have a display screen, it had a built-in printer with a large roll of paper.  This acted as both display and printer.  While it did not have its own disk drive, you could save your programs and data onto paper tape, with punched holes representing the stored information.  We used a Timeshare system, which was running on a remote computer at the county-level school district headquarters.  We would make a phone call to the Timeshare system, and place the phone receiver into a coupler on a dial-up modem.  Then we could log on.  There was some disk storage available on the Timeshare system, so you could retrieve your homework assignments and project files and programs.

For the fun of it, I created a “homegrown” slideshow (when window opens, please click the “View Slideshow” button in order to slideshow, which will display in full screen mode).

The purpose of this Homegrown DIY Javascript Slideshow is threefold:

  • To show some examples of computers (or similar ones) that I have used since I first learned BASIC programming language around 1974-75, back in high school.
  • To get you thinking about how far we have come with computer technology over the past several decades, and where technology might go in the future. We have already seen rapid change in just the last few years (smartphones, tablets, social media).
  • To show you that you can DIY (Do It Yourself), instead of only just relying on “plugins” and copying/pasting code from other sites. You can customize your own webpages, beyond the limits offered by some plug-ins.

As far as #3, as a long-time computer programmer, here is a bit of my own philosophical take on coding: While there are many benefits to Open Source software or using “free” pre-built plug-ins, you can learn more by trying to Do It Yourself (DIY).  Yes, it might take you longer, but once you’ve built something yourself, you can reuse it again (in full or in part), and you can share it with others as well.  By going the DIY route, you can have more control over your own programs and data.  In other words, you don’t have to always be using someone else’s “Cloud” or so-called “free” web service, where they can sell your personal information and profit off of your “free content”.

DIY typically stands for Do It Yourself. But it can also mean Dig In, You-might-like-IT!

These slideshow photos were obtained via Google Image, and handful came from from the Michigan State University website.

For more on Computer History, check out the Computer History Museum and the Smithsonian Computer History Collection.

Happy Coding,
Ron