50 years of BASIC: Celebrating the programming language's long, eventful life

May 1st is the gold anniversary of the language most programmers first learned, including Bill Gates.

Credit: Dartmouth College Library

BASIC creators John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz.

The mainframe isn't the only technology hitting the ripe old age of 50 this year. On May 1st, the BASIC programming language, first developed by Dartmouth College Professors Thomas Kurtz and John Kemeny, celebrates 50 years.

At the time, computers were highly serial. You loaded punch cards and waited your turn to run the application. That was known as batch processing. As computers matured from vacuum tubes to silicon semiconductors, they became more powerful and gained the ability to run multiple programs at once.

Kemeny wanted a language that would allow people to write their own programs and execute at the same time. Kemeny and a programming student both ran a program at the same time written in Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, and both got their responses back. BASIC was born.

BASIC lived up to its name and was fairly straightforward, making it much easier to program than writing in assembler language or punch cards. It would start on minicomputers like the DEC PDP line. It would be released on the growing number of personal computers in the 1970s.

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When the Altair 8800 came out, there were actually two BASIC compilers for it, both inspired by the minicomputer version of the language: Tiny BASIC, a simple version of the language, and Altair BASIC, written by a company called Micro-Soft. You may have heard of them.

Radio Shack's TRS-80, Apple Computer's Apple II, and Commodore's PET 2001 all came with BASIC built into the firmware, and IBM would release a BASIC interpreter for its Personal Computer as well. BASIC would eventually be overshadowed in significance with developers by C and later C++, but it remained a popular first language for many programmers to grasp the concepts of programming.

Microsoft would return to its roots, breathing new life into BASIC in 1991 with the release of Visual Basic, which helped developers write Windows-based BASIC apps that were actually compiled, not just interpreted. Thanks to the power of the VB compiler, it found favor as more than just a teaching tool, and commercial apps were soon being developed with VB. Granted, many if not most were freeware/shareware, but it was more than anyone expected out of BASIC.

BASIC is still alive and kicking. Wikipedia lists 33 different compilers, plus there is True BASIC, the direct successor to Dartmouth BASIC from a company co-owned by Kurtz. There are even a few in the iOS App Store. It doesn't look a thing like the AppleSoft BASIC I was learning 30 years ago, but that's why it survives; BASIC adapted and grew.

Dartmouth will be holding a series of events to mark the anniversary on the campus, but they will also be broadcast on the Internet.

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