Historical Highway Marker Celebrating BASIC
Written by Sue Gee   
Sunday, 23 June 2019

The plaque proclaims BASIC as "the first user-friendly computer programming language" and is located on New Hampshire Route 120, close to Dartmouth College where it was created in 1964.



The fact that this sign has been installed by New Hampshire is due to the efforts of David Brooks, a journalist on the Concord Monitor who having noted that the existing 255 official highway historical markers maintained by the state of New Hampshire failed to celebrate its technical and scientific accomplishments. To rectify this he proposed a marker commemorating BASIC together with the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System, an important precursor to the internet that allowed far-flung computers to share resources - however he was later persuaded that  it would be too hard to cram both concepts into the limited word count of a sign.

Explaining his choice in a newspaper article this month, Brooks wrote:

Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code has probably has done more to introduce more people to computer programming than anything ever created. That includes me: The only functioning programs I’ve ever created were in vanilla BASIC, and I still recall the great satisfaction of typing “100.END.”

But BASIC wasn’t just a toy for classrooms. It proved robust enough to survive for decades, helping launch Microsoft along the way, and there are descendants still in use today.

Dartmouth College, a small university founded in 1769 specializing in the humanities, might seem a strange location to look for computer breakthroughs but there were precedents. It was there in 1940 that Dr Stiblitz of Bell Labs demonstrated the use of a computer over a telephone line in the days when computers hardly existed. Then in 1956 John McCarthy organized the Dartmouth Conference which coined the term "artificial intelligence" and initiated AI as a field of study. It was also in 1956 that two math professors, John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz resolved to find a better way to teach the emerging discipline of computing to their students.

Having been born in 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 math, gained his doctorate at the age of 23 and became a full Professor at Dartmouth College aged 27. But rather than pure research his interests settled on teaching and in particular teaching computing.

Kurtz also received his PhD from Princeton in 1956 and he joined the Maths department at Dartmouth the same year. Having taken a pay cut to work at Dartmouth Kurtz asked Kemeny if there was any way of increasing his income. One suggestion was an IBM research fellowship at the MIT computing site and so he and Kemeny, together with John McCarthy worked together on one of the most primitive of computers -  an IBM 704 located at MIT. 

Kemeny and Kurtz both learned Share Assembly Language and very soon after realized that this was no way to teach computing! It was obvious that a new language was needed and they wasted no time in trying to invent one. Their first attempt, DARtmouth SIMplified COde (DARSIMCO) was just a system of templates, each one corresponding to a small number of assembly language commands, but fortunately 1957 saw the first appearance of FORTRAN, which provided a model of what a high-level language should be like and what it could achieve. Initially BASIC was going to be a subset of FORTRAN but Kemeny and Kurtz decided that no subset of any existing language would be complete enough.

In 1959 Dartmouth College acquired an LGP-30 machine with 4K 30-bit words provided by a magnetic drum and a 16-instruction set, but something better was obviously needed without the complexities and irritations of punched cards and batch processing systems. Can you imagine how long it takes to learn to program if it takes a week to get the results back? It was John McCarthy who suggested that Kemeny and Kurtz do time-sharing and in 1964 with the help of grants and discounts,  a GE-255 computer was installed.

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.

BASIC grew from parochial beginning to be the language that fuelled the microcomputer explosion of the 1980's. This was lageley due to Microsoft which produced versions for the Altair and for many of its successors.

While "street BASIC" was enthusiastically adopted by its users it attracted negative attention from the academic world with the first, and most remembered, broadside being delivered by 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. 

Kemeny and Kurtz were affected by the attack on their language, which they knew was the best for teaching programming to the non-specialist. Their response was to create and market True BASIC - a fully structured compiled language that is still available as a commercial product with the most recent version being True Basic 6.

Perhaps the most influential version of BASIC, in terms of introducing programming to the masses, was QBasic. This was because Microsoft included it in its MS-DOS operating system. It too is still available - in an open source version. There is also a free to download version QB64 v1.3 the allows for older programs written in BASIC to run on today's hardware. According to its website, it also allows for modern software development as it extends the language to use advanced features available in operating systems nowadays as well as OpenGL, which is the library used for rendering across different platforms.

Basic may have a commemorative plaque, but it's still going.


More Information

BASIC at 50 A Dartmouth Celebration

Related Articles

Kemeny & Kurtz - The Invention Of BASIC 

Happy 50th Birthday Basic - Try QuickVB To Celebrate

Small Basic - The Programmer's Guide       


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Last Updated ( Friday, 22 May 2020 )