BASIC is 50 Years Old Today!

Many people learned programming by first writing lines of computer code in a language called BASIC. That name is an abbreviation for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. It was invented in 1964 at Dartmouth College by Professors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz and ran on the college’s Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-1 computer. That computer was later replaced by a General Electric (and later Honeywell) timeshare mainframe. This was long before the invention of desktop computers or Windows or even MS-DOS. The “typical computer” of the time weighed several tons, required special air conditioning, and ran on 440-volt three-phase power.

The first BASIC programs were officially run 50 years ago at 4:00 am on 1 May 1964, when Kemeny and a student programmer typed RUN and started their BASIC programs at the same time, demonstrating both BASIC and the concept that time-sharing could run multiple programs simultaneously. Multi-programming was a radical new concept at the time.

All coding was done on Teletype Model 33 terminals (See the image to the right.). Having the programmer enter programs directly into the computer by using a Teletype machine and then running them from the same device was a new idea at the time. Most computers in those days used punch cards to create JCL (Job Control Language) instructions to accomplish such tasks. Programmers typically wrote their code on paper coding forms (yes, paper and pencil!), sent the coding forms to the keypunch department, allowed several hours or perhaps a day for the punch cards to be created by keypunch operators and then submitted the punch cards to the computer department for the jobs to be run. Then the waiting began. “Will it work? Did I have coding errors?” Many anxious moments were spent waiting for the results. The use of BASIC and time-sharing radically changed that process.

Some years later, the Teletype was replaced by 80-column, character-based computer terminals with a video screen. We now refer to these as “dumb terminals” although that term did not exist in the 1960s and 70s. After all, we only had “dumb terminals” because an intelligent terminal had not yet been invented.

I can speak from experience. Not only was I a computer field service engineer in those days, but I also dabbled in programming. I was responsible for creating a lot of punched cards, including the data for my first genealogy “database.” I rarely had anyone else prepare my punch cards for me, however. I was responsible for repairing and maintaining the keypunch machines as well as for the mainframe computers, so I had free access to any available keypunch machine, as long as it wasn’t being used by someone else. I usually punched my own cards.

I was in seventh heaven in 1976 when my employer relocated me and assigned me to manage the field service team our company maintained at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. As a “manufacturer’s on-site rep,” I had access to one of the most powerful timeshare computers of the day.

I soon signed up for a programming course in BASIC and was delighted to enter my code on the dumb terminals that had now replaced the earlier Teletype machines. I wrote programs, balanced my checkbook, created lists of my ancestors, and played lots of games in Dartmouth’s Kiewit Computation Center.

Look at the picture to the right. See those tape drives? I installed those and repaired them for several years whenever they broke.

Life moved on, and newer and more powerful computers were installed, replacing the older Honeywell system. The technology shifted, and the computing world switched to microcomputers, desktop systems, and rows of servers that are accessed remotely. BASIC was later ported to those new “toy computers” that could be installed on an office desktop. I relocated again to another state but always had fond memories of my days at Dartmouth College with the mainframe computers. I don’t miss punch cards, however.

You can read a history of Computing at Dartmouth in the 1970s at http://www.dartmouth.edu/comp/about/archive/history/timeline/1970s.html. I was fortunate enough to know many of the people in the photographs in that article. They were brilliant people.

 

9 Comments

Basic got a lot of bad press. However, by VB6, Microsoft’s implementation had become a very usable language, and with an excellent IDE. I did some work for a company who were using “Enterprise VB6″ (i.e. multi-threading, Windows Servers, multi-tier servers) and they were completely “shafted” when VB.Net came out. Microsoft clearly had no idea to what level VB6 was being used, and their migration tools were a joke. They turned their back on that company and it folded soon after.

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Our computer lab at Southern Illinois UNiversity-Carbondale had a couple rows of these terminals (around 1975-76), usually all in use. You’d be overjoyed to find a vacant one, only to walk up to it and find out it had a stupid APL keyboard on it.

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I learned BASIC by myself and wrote many programs for myself and the company. We had the PC’s and used punched cards. Plus I had my own PC at home. That was sometime early during my employment from 1958-2005 and do not remember the dates when I learned BASIC but it was shortly after it came out.

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How old are Fortran and Algol ?

Does that date me ?

And then, how about MSDOS 3.1 batch files ? …………………..

David

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About 1960, while working at the Army Map Service, I learned enough Fortran to operate a refrigerator size Bendix with Frieden teletype — no monitor. In the 1950s AMS bought the second Univac I. The Census Bureau got the first one. Later AMS bought a Honeywell computer that could invert a 100 x 100 matrix. My first computer in 1982 was a tiny Timex-Sinclair. I learned BASIC and wrote a hundred programs Bought my first PC in 1992.

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I took a Computer Math class in 1972. We used a timeshare computer in Boston (we were in Texas). We created programs in BASIC and entered them on paper tape. I think I still have my paper tape program in a box somewhere. Kids now wouldn’t believe it!

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Hi Dick –

I remember the computer center at Dartmouth. I used to go there with my father and my children, and play games…..what fun to be on the leading edge of technology. Perhaps I even saw you there…..

Linda

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Charles W. Meiser May 5, 2014 at 2:13 pm

Those were the days. About 4 years before BASIC was born, I was using a language called PINT on a Royal McBee LGP-30 and later a General Precision RPC-4000. The head of the Purdue University School of Electrical Engineering thought there was a future in computers so he bought them. Only E.E. students had hands-on access. I found a PINT manual at http://bitsavers.trailing-edge.com/pdf/royalPrecision/RPC-4000/H1-02.0_PINT_Program_Description_1964.pdf

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