Co-inventor of BASIC Language born 85 years ago today
Written by Historian   
Tuesday, 31 May 2011

John Kemeny, who together with Tom Kurtz invented the BASIC computer language, was born on May 31, 1926 in Budapest, Hungary.

 

Kemeny emigrated to the USA with his parents in 1940 when he was 12. Clearly the effort of learning English wasn't enough to damage his other studies because he entered Princeton to study maths.

 

This turned out to be more eventful than you might imagine because in his first year he was drafted to the Los Alamos project to help with the project to build the atomic bomb with Richard Feynman as his boss.

This is where he first encountered electronic computers - in the form of a large room full of IBM calculators! It took weeks to solve even a simple numerical problem.

After studying maths at Princeton he became one of the many research assistants to Albert Einstein, yes THE Einstein. Kemeny spent many hours checking Einstein's calculations and said

"if we both got the same answer then the chances were overwhelming that it was right".

Even here computers would have been helpful, but as Einstein told Johnny Von Neumann he needed a different sort of machine, one that could manipulate symbols. Little did Kemeny then realise that this would be where his future lay.

A doctorate, in maths, at the age of 23 and a full professorship at 27 at Dartmouth College give you some idea of how fast Kemeny's career was moving. But rather than pure research his interests settled on teaching and in particular teaching computing.

 

Kemeny

John G Kemeny (1926 - 1992)

 

In the mid-1950s Dartmouth College didn't have a computer of its own - instead it relied on an IBM 704 at MIT. Computing initially came to Dartmouth when an LGP-30 machine with 4K 30-bit words provided by a magnetic drum and a 16-instruction set was installed - however this wasn't suitable for teaching computing and so  with the help of grants and discounts the college acquired a GE-255 computer.

Even before this machine arrived Kemeny and a group of students were working on the compiler for a language suitable for learning to program  - the Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, or BASIC and the first ever BASIC program ran within months of the machine's arrival - at 4 o'clock in the morning on May 1, 1964.

For more on the story if how BASIC came about:

Kemeny & Kurtz, inventors of BASIC

 

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