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Offline persiaTopic starter

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Baby we were born to RUN: celebrating 50 years of Basic
« on: April 30, 2014, 02:45:50 PM »
Baby we were born to RUN: celebrating 50 years of Basic
Created 50 years ago, the computing language Basic played a crucial role in teaching people to code and led to the democratisation of personal computing in the 1980s

• Thank you, Basic: developers remember 50 years of creative coding

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Jack Schofield
theguardian.com, Wednesday 30 April 2014 04.23 EDT

This September, children across the UK will study computer science as part of the national curriculum. Part of the UK government's Year of Code, this includes a £500,000 PR campaign to raise the profile of coding, and a £2m investment in training 400 "master teachers" across the country.

Yet this isn't the first attempt to bring computer science closer to mainstream education. In fact, the idea that students should know how to write code goes back 50 years to Dartmouth College, an Ivy League university in the rural town of Hanover, New Hampshire. This is where, in a basement at 4am on 1 May 1964, Prof John Kemeny and a student programmer both typed RUN and started their Basic programs at the same time.

Dartmouth Basic - or Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code - had officially been born.

Although computers were not widely 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". This was tricky when programs were delivered on stacks of punched cards that computer operators loaded one after another in a system known as "batch processing".


They wanted students to be able to interact with computers. That meant developing an interactive time-sharing system - so that Dartmouth's computer could serve more than one user at once - and a language that non-specialists could handle. Which is exactly what they did.

Basic wasn't invented from scratch: earlier efforts included Darsimco (Dartmouth Simplified Code) and DOPE (Dartmouth Oversimplified Programming Experiment). Basic also drew on an earlier language, John Backus's Fortran (Formula Translator). However, Basic made it much easier to enter programs in the days before computers even had screens.

After Intel invented the microprocessor in 1971, the price of computers came crashing down, and in the second half of the 1970s, 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.

The 1980s home computing boom

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 Thatcher government helped by subsidising schools to buy computers, and Sir Kenneth Baker became the UK's first Minister for Information Technology.

Basic was also where Bill Gates started. He wrote a version of Basic for the primitive MITS Altair microcomputer and dropped out of Harvard to found Microsoft with his programming partner, Paul Allen. They moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where MITS was based, and founded a tiny company called Microsoft. Of course, after the giant IBM decided to buy Microsoft Basic for the IBM PC in 1981, it got a lot bigger.

Microsoft Basic hasn't changed much over the years, but in the 1990s, Microsoft took the language to a new level with Visual Basic, which could handle graphical user interfaces. This became popular for developing business and even commercial software. There's a free version, Visual Basic Express, for anyone who wants to try it, but it bears little resemblance to the Dartmouth original, apart from sharing an approachable name. Microsoft also offers a Small Basic for kids.

Kemeny and Kurtz set up a small company to sell their version, True Basic, and wrote a book, Back To Basic: The History, Corruption, and Future of the Language (1985). As the title implies, they didn't approve of the multifarious sins committed by the bastardised versions of Basic on popular microcomputers. However, serious programmers were adopting other languages, such as Pascal and C, and there really wasn't much of a market for amateurs who just wanted to learn a bit of coding.

Smartphones help consume, not create

Still, Basic proved its worth among Dartmouth students, and it made a huge impact on personal computing in the 1970s and 1980s. It helped a lot of people understand the basic principles of algorithms and the various ways to store and access data, including me, albeit often by getting them wrong.

Dartmouth is celebrating Basic's birthday with a day of events on Wednesday 30 April, including a panel discussion on the future of computing that will be webcast live on Dartmouth’s YouTube channel. Visitors who can make it to the campus will be able to use an original Model 33 Teletype terminal connected to a Basic emulator designed by Kurtz, though Kemeny died in 1992.

It's a sobering thought that most of us have constant access to unimaginably more powerful computers in our pockets – our smartphones – but achieve a lot less with them. They program us to consume, not to create.

Learning to code might help, but the age of Basic programming has gone.


What we\'re witnessing is the sad, lonely crowing of that last, doomed cock.

Offline gertsy

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Re: Baby we were born to RUN: celebrating 50 years of Basic
« Reply #1 on: April 30, 2014, 11:41:24 PM »
10 PRINT TAB (RND()*20); "Cool"
20 GOTO 10