May 1 marks the 50th anniversary of a special computer language aimed at enabling college students not trained in mathematics to use computers. The birth of BASIC is now seen as a major step toward the era of personal computers.
50 years ago, computers were owned primarily by governments, businesses and universities, operated by programmers who wrote pages of instructions that consisted of mathematical formulas.
Hoping their school’s computer could be used by students from other departments, two mathematics professors at Dartmouth College, John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, developed a simpler set of instructions. It was called Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, or BASIC.
Kurtz spoke to VOA via Skype. “We deliberately invented a language that was almost devoid of many of the technical details that were present in other languages,” said Kurtz.
BASIC translated English commands, such as IF…THEN, or GO…TO, into the numerical language computers could understand.
Kurtz said the response was overwhelming.
“Not only our students loved getting onto the computer any time they wanted to, for whatever purpose they wanted to, but even the faculty got interested. Of course not everybody, but many of them,” he said.
That happened just as computers became fast enough to execute many commands at the same time, says Peggy Kidwell, Curator of Mathematics at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
“Now, that whole notion that anybody could run a computer permeates the whole world. And I would say that is not the immediate legacy of BASIC but it is a part of what was involved in building up on BASIC,” said Kidwell.
Kurtz and Kemeny released BASIC to the public, free of charge, so the language quickly became widespread. Kurtz says they hoped it would solve what they saw as a major upcoming problem.
“That is to say, the computer is going to be very important in the world and most people didn’t know anything about it because it was in the hands of experts,” he said.
The rapid development of computers was followed by many improved versions of BASIC… and other easy to use languages.
Today, BASIC is used only by enthusiasts, but personal computers owe their existence to the first programing language that anyone could speak.
(Math professor and future Dartmouth president John Kemeny teaches BASIC programming to students in the Kiewit Computation Center. Photo courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library via Dartmouth Flickr)