44 years of BASIC

By Lyle Bateman
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

On May 1st, 1964, in the early morning, the world’s first BASIC compiler began to run. The “Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code” was designed to sit on the opposite end of the programming spectrum from the more complex, scientifically based languages of the time, such as Fortran. It really was the first effective programming language designed for simplicity, and was easier to understand.

Mathematicians John G Kemeny and Thomas E Kurtz were looking to develop an easy-to-use programming language for their undergraduate students, and after going through a couple of earlier variants like Darsimco and DOPE, BASIC emerged as the language they had been looking for.

Its hard to know if Kemeny and Kurtz had any idea of the widespread impact their language would have on the world. It was still designed for undergraduate math students, a fairly select group of academically inclined people, and in 1964, the idea that the “average person” would ever even WANT to use any programming language to write computer programs was pretty far fetched. Even the notion of personal computers was still very much science fiction in 1964, so its hard to know whether Kemeny and Kurtz saw the larger implications of what they were doing or not.

From the perspective of hindsight, however, there is very little question of the impact BASIC would have on today’s computer technology. It’s hard to imagine early PCs of the 1970s without BASIC, or something very much like it, particularly considering the complexity of Fortran or Assembler/Machine code and the lack of desirability they’d bring to those machines. The use of BASIC in early Apple computers, among others, was a critical contributor to their reputation as general purpose machines that the whole family could use.

As you sit today, surfing the Web, working on a report or spreadsheet, or answering e-mail on the PC in your house or on your desk at work, give a quick happy birthday to BASIC, and a quick thought to Kemeny and Kurtz. For good or ill, the PC you are using today may very well not exist were it not for their efforts to make computer programming a little simpler for undergraduate math students.

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