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Basic hits 40

Four decades ago, two Dartmouth College professors made computing history

By Linda Rosencrance
April 30, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Forty years ago, at 4 a.m. on May 1, 1964, two Dartmouth College professors -- with the help of two of their undergraduate students -- made computing history.
While the professors, John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz slept, the students successfully ran two simple Basic programs on two separate teletype terminals located in the basement of College Hall.
Kemeny, who later became president of Dartmouth and died in 1992, and Kurtz were the authors of Basic, which Kurtz said went on to be the most widely used computer language in the world.
Kurtz, who is now retired, talked about Basic, originally an acronym for Beginners' All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, in a telephone interview this week from his Hanover, N.H., home.
Basic ran on the Dartmouth Time Sharing System, a network of multiple simple terminals connected to a large computer, Kurtz explained. "The development of Basic was a natural step in a whole progression of computer activities that began when I arrived at Dartmouth in 1956," he said. "The whole thrust was to try to make computing easier for people, particularly nonscience and nonengineering people."
Around 1960 or so, Kurtz said, he and Kemeny realized that the only way to do that was to develop a time-sharing system that would be especially geared toward small student jobs rather than the "big research stuff."
"The idea was that a time-sharing system made it easy for students or anybody else to get to the computer," Kurtz said. "The user interface to the time-sharing system was very simple. Instead of using things like 'log in' and 'log out,' we used [simple English-language functions] like 'hello' and 'goodbye.'
"We needed a simple language, and that's how Basic got developed," he said. "The languages that were around in those days were just not suitable, so we had to develop one from scratch -- [though] it derived from the existing languages, there's no question about that -- and we also wanted a computing environment where people could use it without having to take a course."
Basic was based on Fortran and Algol and was first implemented on a General Electric 225 mainframe, which supported multiple terminals. When it was introduced, Basic was a compiled language that used common-sense commands like LIST, SAVE, RUN, END and PRINT.
"The whole business just exploded," Kurtz said. "Everybody started using it, and it drew a lot of attention from around the country. The whole thing grew just enormously fast -- far beyond anything we'd ever expected."
Kurtz said the companies that first started making personal computers decided they would have to havea version of Basic on their machines because it was a relatively small language -- there weren't a lot of extra features on it.
"It became the language of choice for all the personal computers that were being introduced, and it just took off," he said. "Basic certainly got millions of people around the world involved in computing."
While original Basic may no longer be in widespread use, Visual Basic remains a popular programming platform. But with the introduction of new technologies, as well as new languages, PCs, spreadsheets, word processing applications and the like, Kemeny and Kurtz's original Basic is used only in isolated locations now.
"Kids now want to learn Java in order to construct a browser application, or HTML, so Basic is really much less important than it was 20 years ago," he said.

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