BASIC Turns 60: The Programming Language That Democratized Computing


From Dartmouth to the World: BASIC's Enduring Legacy in Computer Programming

On May 1, 1964, at the crack of dawn, a quiet revolution in computing began at Dartmouth College. Mathematicians John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz successfully ran the first program written in their newly developed BASIC (Beginner's All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) programming language on the college's General Electric GE-225 mainframe. Little did they know that their creation would go on to inspire generations of programmers and democratize computing over the next six decades.

BASIC, with its easy-to-grasp syntax and plain English keywords, proved to be a game-changer in the world of programming. Before its inception, programming languages like Fortran, Algol, and COBOL were complex and primarily used by professionals. Kemeny and Kurtz recognized the need for a more user-friendly language that would allow amateurs and non-computer engineers to harness the power of computers.

The journey to create BASIC began in 1956 with Dartmouth Simplified Code (DARSIMSCO) and the Dartmouth Oversimplified Programming Experiment (DOPE). While these early attempts didn't quite hit the mark, they laid the groundwork for the development of BASIC, which started in 1963. Kemeny secured a National Science Foundation grant to bring a GE-225 computer to Dartmouth and build the first fully functional general-purpose time-sharing system, despite the referees' doubts about his plan to accomplish the work with a group of undergraduates.

The simplicity and power of BASIC quickly made it a favorite among students and faculty at Dartmouth. As part of the deal to buy the GE-225 computer, Kemeny, Kurtz, and others had earlier built a time-sharing operating system for General Electric. This allowed colleges, high schools, and individuals across the country to dial into mainframe computers and write programs using BASIC, extending its impact far beyond Dartmouth's campus.

In the 1970s and 1980s, BASIC played a prominent role in the rise of personal computers. Paul Allen and Bill Gates adapted the language for the Altair 8800, founding Microsoft in the process. Steve Wozniak developed a BASIC interpreter for the Apple I and later the Apple II, where it remained a key part of the platform throughout its lifespan. BASIC came preinstalled or shipped as an easily accessible programming environment on popular home computers such as the Atari 800, TRS-80, Commodore VIC-20, Commodore 64, TI-99/4A, BBC Micro, and the IBM PC.

Today, while BASIC may not be as widely used as a practical language, its influence lives on through its descendants and the programming languages it inspired. Microsoft's Visual Basic, Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), and Microsoft Small Basic continue to carry the torch, while modern languages like Python and JavaScript have taken on roles similar to those once filled by BASIC, prioritizing simplicity, readability, and ease of use.

As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of BASIC, it's important to recognize the profound impact it has had on the world of computing. Kemeny and Kurtz's creation empowered generations of young computer programmers and made programming accessible to a broader audience. BASIC's legacy serves as a testament to the power of innovation and the importance of making technology accessible to all.