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Relic: BASIC

Go underneath the hood of your computer (or any laptop or smartphone) and you’ll encounter a programming language. Some of these programming languages include C++ (the most widely recognized programming language), JavaScript, HTML, Python, Ruby/Ruby on Rails, and more. Where did all programming languages begin? The answer is the Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, better known as BASIC.

BASIC is the brainchild of John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz, two mathematicians who tried to simplify the use of the computer. Kemeny said, “Our vision was that every student on campus should have access to a computer, and any faculty member should be able to use a computer in the classroom whenever appropriate. It was as simple as that.”

They had developed previous programming languages without much success. The technology was also uncooperative: batch processing took too long. They also co-developed the Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS) which allowed multiple users to edit and run programs in BASIC. DTSS also had a single machine divide up its processing time among many users, which led to interest in developing a system that used DTSS and a new language for people outside of science and technology fields.

During BASIC’s invention in 1964, computers were only able to be used by scientists and other people who were trained in using technology. Hewlett-Packard developed a series of computers for BASIC and DTSS from the 1960s to the 1980s. Early computer games were programmed in BASIC as well. One of the graduate students that was on the BASIC implementation team was Mary Kenneth Keller, who was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science. Another interesting concept was making the compiler of BASIC free of charge, which made it open-source in nature, like today’s Linux operating system.

In the 1970s, many variants of BASIC came through, leading Kemeny and Kurtz’s version to be called Dartmouth BASIC. One of the most famous was Dennis Allison’s Tiny BASIC, which was a version of BASIC created for microcomputers. Altair BASIC was developed by Bill Gates and Paul Allen in the same year, forming Microsoft. The first version of Altair BASIC was written by Gates and Allen themselves along with programmer Monte Davidoff, who was also a dorm mate of Gates. The Apple II, which came out in 1977, used BASIC, as well as Commodore and the Atari 8-bit computers. The IBM PC and MS-DOS all utilized BASIC as well. However, by the late 1980s, users were already using pre-made applications that were made by other people, and the C language had replaced BASIC for app development.

Microsoft came out with Visual Basic in 1991, which was object-oriented and generally used for the macro language for Microsoft Excel. It later found use for other custom business applications. Those who knew Visual Basic in the 1990s were considered skilled job seekers; Microsoft also created VBScript in 1996 and Visual Basic.NET in 2001, which retained syntax that reflected BASIC but had the same power as C# and Java. Kemeny and Kurtz created True BASIC in 1983, the direct successor to Dartmouth BASIC which they created almost 20 years earlier.

While we can talk about any invention that jump-started the digital age such as the integrated circuit or home computers such as the Apple II or Commodore 64, we have to remember what is under the hood of these basic computers. After all, beauty is said to be on the inside, and BASIC was the father of all programming languages we know today.

Also published in GADGETS MAGAZINE November 2019 Issue
Words by Jose Alvarez