Steven Spielberg’s BASIC dad needs more attention

fd_steven-and-arnold-spielberg_061512There are moves afoot to make the world more aware of Steven Spielberg’s dad, who quietly invented modern computing.

According to Gereports, Arnold Spielberg revolutionised computing with his GE-225 mainframe computer and the development of BASIC.

In the late 1950s, the machine allowed a team of Dartmouth University students and researchers to develop the BASIC programing language, an easy-to-use coding tool that quickly spread and ushered in the era of personal computers.

Steven Spielberg told GE Reports said he could remember his dad working on the GE225.

“Dad explained how his computer was expected to perform, but the language of computer science in those days was like Greek to me. It all seemed very exciting, but it was very much out of my reach, until the 1980s, when I realised what pioneers like my dad had created were now the things I could not live without.”

The Dartmouth team ran BASIC, or Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, on the GE-225 for the first time a half-century ago, on May 1, 1964.

Arnold Spielberg is 98. He said it was a way of life, because he started playing around with radios when he was about eight or nine years old.

During World War II, he served as the communications chief of a bomb squadron in India and later started making early valve computers at RCA. GE engineer Homer Oldfield hired Spielberg to set up GE’s Industrial computer Department in Phoenix in 1957.

Spielberg and his colleague Charles Propster, whom he brought from RCA, designed the GE-225 in 1959. It was a 20-bit computer that filled an entire room and contained 1,000 circuit boards, 10,000 transistors and 20,000 diodes. It stored data on disks, magnetic tapes, punch cards and paper tapes. It also allowed operators sitting at up to 11 external terminals to access the memory independently. The possibility of this embryonic form of personal computing led the Dartmouth team to develop BASIC.

However even though they already had Bank of America as a customer, GE did not want to make business computers and fired Oldfield for arranging the project.

But the GE-225, which cost $250,000, was a hit and the marketing team described early orders as a “landslide.” The business sold dozens of them to customers and also to other GE units.

Spielberg left GE in 1963, the same year Dartmouth’s “BASIC team” travelled to Arizona to learn how to program the equipment. GE sold the computer division to Honeywell in 1970.

The IEEE Computer Society recognised Spielberg as a computer pioneer in 2006 for “contribution to real-time data acquisition and recording that significantly contributed to the definition of modern feedback and control processes.”