Basic is such a loaded term these days. The kids use it as a synonym for unremarkable and uninteresting—interestingly enough, words that could not describe BASIC, the computer language co-invented by John Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz at Dartmouth University.

Kurtz (who was born on Feb. 22, 1928) and Kemeny created BASIC (which stood for “Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code”) to make programming accessible to the masses on Dartmouth University’s time-sharing computing system. In an open letter, Kurtz wrote: “It turned out that easy-to-learn and use was also a good idea for faculty members, staff members, and everyone else. … There were very few choices for students, teachers, and others who didn’t want to dedicate their lives to programming.” BASIC relied on numbered instructions, or lines, paired with simple commands, such as GOTO, IF/THEN and PRINT. The program made its debut on May 1, 1964; by 1967, 80 percent of three Dartmouth freshman classes (some 2,000 students) had used BASIC.

The impact of BASIC

BASIC’s democratization of programming earned criticism from some, notably computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra, who wrote that working in BASIC ruined students for future “good programming.” (You could say he thought BASIC was basic.) Kurtz and Kemeny themselves became disenchanted by the various permutations of BASIC and ultimately created “True BASIC,” which is platform-independent and conforms to ANSI standards.

One of BASIC’s biggest fans, however, is a household name and got his start using the language, proving BASIC to be both remarkable and interesting. That would be one Bill Gates, who collaborated with friend Paul Allen to write their own version of BASIC for the Altair 8800 in their first outing as “Micro-Soft.”

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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