It is now more than 50 years since John Kemeny and a student programmer both typed RUN and started their Basic programs at the same time. They had created what became known as Dartmouth Basic – or Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.
Computers were not really available at the time, Kemeny and Dartmouth maths professor Thomas Kurtz had already formed the view that “knowledge about computers and computing must become an essential part of a liberal education”.
At the time programs were delivered on stacks of punch cards that computer operators loaded one after another in a system known as “batch processing”.
Basic was developed from codes such as Darsimco (Dartmouth Simplified Code) and DOPE (Dartmouth Oversimplified Programming Experiment) and John Backus’s Fortran (Formula Translator). However, Basic made it much easier to enter programs in the days before computers even had screens.
Basic took off after the invention of the microprocessor in 1971 and the price of computers fell. Basic became the standard language for home users and hobbyist programmers. There wasn’t much packaged software, so people expected to write some of their own. Computer magazines published program listings for people to type in, then save to cassette tape.
In 1982, the boom in home computing led to the UK’s first attempt to teach everybody to code: the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project. This was based on BBC Basic – written by Richard Russell – running on Acorn BBC microcomputers. The editor, Mike Magee, still has an Acorn Atom in his yard.
It was Basic that most computer geeks started on. Bill Gates wrote a version of Basic for the MITS Altair microcomputer and dropped out of Harvard to found Microsoft with his programming partner, Paul Allen.
Microsoft Basic hasn’t changed much over the years, but in the 1990s, Microsoft created Visual Basic, which could handle graphical user interfaces. This became popular for developing business and even commercial software. But Vole kept changing the rules between versions which caused a certain amount of frustration for Mike Magee.
Programmers that were more serious moved to other languages, such as Pascal and C but Basic did help a generation of people understand the basic principles of algorithms and the various ways to store and access data.