Kemeny & Kurtz, inventors of BASIC
Wednesday, 05 May 2010
Article Index
Kemeny & Kurtz, inventors of BASIC
Birth of BASIC
Street Basics

For whatever reasons BASIC spread to mini-computers world wide while mainframes still tended to offer just Fortran. BASIC tended to be regarded as a small machine language. A language for machines that couldn't quite manage to run a real language like Fortran. What could be more natural then that when the smallest of all computers appeared on the scene, the microcomputer, someone should think in terms of Basic as a suitable language.

Bill Gates had programmed in BASIC at high school and so he and Paul Allen implemented it for the Altair 8080 machine in 1977. However it is worth saying that they weren't the only people thinking that BASIC was just what was needed - it was a fairly obvious step but they got their first and convincingly.

A downhill slide?

The start of the "street Basics" as Kemeny and Kurtz called them also marked the start of their worries about the way the language was developing. Back at Dartmouth they had improved the language with the aim of making it simpler and more elegant. The original primitive BASIC was developing into a sophisticated modern language. It absorbed the lessons of structured programming by including indenting and subroutines with parameters. In 1977 Stephen Garland produced SBASIC - a fully structured language - just one year before Gates and Allen's version of the original BASIC hit the streets. All was not well in the world of BASIC.

The first broadside came from a letter - "GOTO considered harmful" in an academic journal by Edsger Dijkstra, one of the pioneers of structured programming. Put bluntly this claimed that students who learned to program via BASIC were irrevocably brain damaged and could never reform their ways and learn a structured language. At the time this claim was taken seriously and few people had the courage to stand up and point out what a narrow minded, misguided,  spiteful and wrong man Dijkstra was. It is and should have been obvious that it is the programmer and his style that is structured and not the language. There is also plenty of evidence that BASIC is a fine first language as long as it is taught properly and no language carries with it the guarantee that it will not or cannot be misused.

Clearly Kemeny and Kurtz were affected by the attack on their language which they knew was the best for teaching programming to the non-specialist. But they had to do something to defend their language against the growing flood of street BASICs that often abandoned the principle that above all else the language should be easy to use either because they needed a quick fix or more often because of the limitations of the hardware. Their response was to create and market True BASIC - a full structured compiled language.




True BASIC introduced many of the language forms that we now take for granted in more common dialects - IF..THEN..ELSE, DO..LOOP and the EXIT DO. Personally I think that we owe as much of a debt to True BASIC in providing an operational standard for Microsoft and other dialects as we do for the invention of the language.

In retrospect True BASIC never really made it to the wider audience that say GW, Q, Power or Visual Basic did. Kurtz remained of the opinion that True BASIC has much to offer the beginner and even suggested that Visual BASIC might have to be considered dangerous.

As well as co-inventing BASIC, Kemeny was president of Dartmouth college for 11 years and served on the commission that looked into the causes of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Kurtz has spent much time trying to produce the official standard for BASIC and retired from Dartmouth to give his attention to True BASIC Inc.

You get the feeling that neither Kemeny nor Kurtz liked what Bill Gates did to their language and regarded him as an interfering outsider, concerned with marketing and money. Yet I think the three of them shared a common view of the language as a the most practical of tools to get a program implemented. Gates has been quoted as telling his development teams that he could get the same job (no matter what it was!) done using BASIC in just a few minutes. Kemeny and Kurtz really should have been proud of him.

To learn more about True BASIC and find software, visit

To find out more about the philosophy of BASIC read "Back to BASIC" by Kemeny and Kurtz included in side panel.





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