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Monday, April 21, 2014

10: PRINT “BASIC Turns 50” - 20: IF (old) THEN (nostalgic) - 30: GOTO 20

David Brooks

Every technology has its own soundtrack. For the early programming language known as BASIC, which turns 50 in a week, the soundtrack was pretty darn loud.

“When I was at Central High in Manchester, it was 1967 or 1968, the school got a Model 33 Teletype machine, a noisy thing that printed only capital letters on a roll of yellow paper. The exciting thing was that it was connected up to the Kiewit Computation Center at Dartmouth, and we could do real programming on it, in BASIC or Fortran,” is how Gary McGath of Nashua recalled it in an email. ...

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Every technology has its own soundtrack. For the early programming language known as BASIC, which turns 50 in a week, the soundtrack was pretty darn loud.

“When I was at Central High in Manchester, it was 1967 or 1968, the school got a Model 33 Teletype machine, a noisy thing that printed only capital letters on a roll of yellow paper. The exciting thing was that it was connected up to the Kiewit Computation Center at Dartmouth, and we could do real programming on it, in BASIC or Fortran,” is how Gary McGath of Nashua recalled it in an email.

“That’s what I remember most about – the big, clunky, loud teletype machine and big yellow roll of paper,” McGath said.

The clatter of printers is a key part of any memory about BASIC, the innovative computer language released at Dartmouth on May 1, 1964, because monitors hardly existed: If you didn’t print out your program, you didn’t see it.

I can attest to that. I used BASIC to play a game called Moon Lander via the Dartmouth Time Sharing System, the innovative computer network which launched at the same time and with roughly the same parents as BASIC. I still recall eight-foot-long print-outs of games taped to the wall of the computer center, celebrating the few times that the lander didn’t crash. (None of those printouts were mine – sigh.)

In his email reminiscence, written in response to a query on my blog, McGath noted: “A program which I wrote, to play the game Mancala, actually got me a certificate and a tie tack from Dartmouth. It used up lots of paper, since it printed out the board on every move.”

BASIC, which stands for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, wasn’t the first successful computer language by a long shot. But it is fondly remembered by millions, and was important for the development of computing, because it was so accessible. Dartmouth is celebrating its 50th birthday on Wednesday, April 30.

Professors John Kemeny, a mathematician who later became Dartmouth’s 13th president, and Tom Kurtz, plus a bunch of undergrads, created BASIC and the time-sharing system as part of a push to wrest programming out of the hands of corporate behemoths like IBM.

BASIC was designed to be simple, so that beginners could understand and learn it. It had numbered lines of code; a few simple instructions like RUN, PRINT and IF-THEN; and an internal structure that didn’t get more complicated than GOTO, which let you hop around the program.

Chuck Sherman, Dartmouth class of 1966 who lives in Vermont, heard about BASIC for the first time in a college course on psychology statistics.

“The professor said, here’s a language called BASIC. If you have any difficulty, I’ll be in my office at 3 o’clock. There was no manual, you just started,” he said.

“The idea that you’d ever buy software in shrink-wrapped packages, I would have laughed at it,” said the 69-year-old Sherman, adding (in a phrase you’d expect from a Vermonter who graduated in the 1960s): “We rolled our own software.”

Dartmouth pointed me to Sherman when I asked them for sources, describing him as something of a BASIC geek. He says his knowledge got him a great job with Pillsbury, the baking company, around the time it bought its very first computers.

“I was treated like a king,” he recalled. “I was given two offices, taught the vice-president how to use time-sharing and BASIC.”

The memories live on, even if the programming language has faded.

“We talk about BASIC when we get together,” he said of class reunions.

McGath, 62, went on to a programming career, and currently works for Outcome Referrals in Framingham, Mass., a medical data records systems. He quickly graduated from BASIC into languages like Algol, Fortran and C, and in recent years “I’ve been doing mostly Java.”

What’s the biggest difference between Java and BASIC?

“Mostly structure,” he said. “There are huge numbers of libraries, classes and subclasses, an awful lot to learn in Java. You can construct a huge program and organize it.

“BASIC – it doesn’t scale up. If you write a gigantic system in BASIC, you’d get totally lost,” he said.

Sherman pointed to the difference, recalling an amortization program that he wrote in BASIC decades ago.

“Today, I’d just do it on a spreadsheet,” he said.

BASIC eventually faded even as a training program. Descendants like VisualBasic lasted into the new millennium, but I couldn’t find anybody who had actually used plain old BASIC since Jimmy Carter was president, although it lives online as a sort of joke, via nostalgia sites and emulators, including many written in Javascript.

Despite that, you could say that BASIC and Dartmouth time-sharing were more wildly successful than was expected even by Kemeny (no shrinking violet, from what I’ve read).

We live in a programming-filled, networked world, even if GOTO statements and time-sharing systems have been superseded. Computing has spread to the masses, for better or worse, and BASIC can take part of the credit.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@granitegeek).