GOTO 50: 7 ways to celebrate BASIC’s golden anniversary

The language that helped make programming accessible to everyone is turning 50. Here are 7 ways to mark this historic occasion

It was 50 years ago today...

May 1, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the BASIC (Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) programming language. It was at 4:00 am on May 1, 1964 on the Dartmouth College campus that a BASIC program was first run. In fact, several brief BASIC programs were run simultaneously at the time on the new Dartmouth Time-Sharing System (DTSS). BASIC was created by professors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz as a simpler alternative to existing, more complex languages like Fortran and Algol. BASIC quickly became a phenomenon and the language that introduced many people to programming. In case you were unable to attend BASIC’s 50th anniversary celebrations at Dartmouth, here are 7 ways that you can commemorate this historical milestone.

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Photo of the exterior of Dartmouth's Collis Center, where BASIC was born
Credit: Google
Visit the birthplace of BASIC

The very first BASIC programs were run in the basement of Dartmouth’s College Hall in 1964. Today, College Hall is called the Collis Center for Student Involvement and is “the heart of campus life at Dartmouth.” If you can’t make it to the Dartmouth campus for a nerdy pilgrimage to bow down at BASIC’s birthplace, you can at least check it out on Google maps; it’s located at the southwest corner of the campus green.

Watch this short video on the history of BASIC

As part of BASIC’s 50th anniversary celebration, Dartmouth created this short video on the birth of BASIC, as well as the first implementation of computer time sharing.

Review the original BASIC instruction manual

BASIC was created, of course, to be simple to learn and use by non-programmers. Relive just how simple and stripped down the language was by reviewing Dartmouth’s original BASIC instruction manual from 1964. It contains descriptions of the handful of operations (like PRINT, FOR, GOTO and READ) and mathematical functions (e.g., SIN, COS, ABS, RND) it supported. It also describes the revolutionary new computer time-sharing system they created (DTSS), which could support up to 20 users at a time. Finally, the manual has instructions on how to use the teletype input, which was like a typewriter, but with some special keys (RETURN) and only typed in all-caps. It’s a true gem of programming history.

Read “10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10”

In 2012, a group of authors published a book of essays on a 30 year-old, one line BASIC program written for the Commodore VIC-20 and Commodore 64 computers. The name of the book was the program code itself, 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, which is designed to generate an endless scroll of the random display of forward and backslashes. The authors argue that this one line of BASIC code is a cultural artifact, which can tell us about the times in which it was written, the history that preceded it and the technology on which its based. You can purchase the book or download a PDF version under a Creative Commons license.

Photo of the Sundowner Motel where Altair BASIC was written and Microsoft was born
Credit: Google
Visit the birthplace of Altair BASIC

Dartmouth’s initial version of BASIC eventually spawned hundreds of implementations of the language for many different computers and operating systems. One of the most famous versions was a BASIC interpreter written in 1975 by a young Bill Gates and Paul Allen for the new MITS Altair 8800 personal computer. To write the code, they set up shop in the Sundowner Motel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and created what eventually became Altair BASIC, which also became the genesis for Microsoft. The building is no longer a motel, but it’s still standing at 6141 Central Ave NE in Albuquerque, which you can visit in person or via Google Maps.

Play Breakout

One of the most historic implementations of BASIC was Integer BASIC, written by Steve Wozniak in 1976. It was originally created for the Apple I computer (loaded via cassette tape) and was included on ROM with the Apple II. Wozniak used Integer BASIC to recreate the Atari game Breakout (which Wozniak and Steve Jobs helped to created for Atari). He called his Integer BASIC-based Breakout clone Brick Out and showed it to the Homebrew Computer Club meeting in 1976. While Brick Out is hard to come by, you can play a version of Breakout that Google created in honor of Breakout’s 37th birthday in 2013.

Photo of a Commodore 64 emulator running a BASIC program
Do some BASIC programming

The best way to celebrate the birth of BASIC, of course, is simply to get your hands dirty and write some BASIC programs. There are any number of BASIC interpreters and compilers out there for Windows, Mac, Linux and even iOS. You can find many emulators that will allow you to write and run BASIC code right in the browser, using many classic implementations, like Applesoft BASIC and Commodore BASIC. So, go ahead and relive your formative programming days or, if you’ve never programmed in BASIC, give it a try to see what all the fuss was about.