How BASIC Opened Up Computers to All of Us

By Dow Jones Business News, 
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By Dan Rockmore

Fifty years ago, at 4 a.m. on May 1, 1964, in the basement of College Hall at Dartmouth College, the world of computing changed forever. Professor John Kemeny, then the chairman of the mathematics department at Dartmouth and later its president, and Mike Busch, a Dartmouth sophomore, typed "RUN" on a pair of computer terminals to execute two programs on a single industrial-sized General Electric "mainframe" computer. The programs were written in Basic (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), a fledgling computer language designed for the everyman, by Prof. Kemeny, Professor Tom Kurtz and a team of eager students.

Back then, using a computer was almost exclusively the privilege of a select minority of scientists and engineers who were conversant in the early languages of assembly code and Fortran. Prof. Kemeny, who had been a programmer on the Manhattan Project for Richard Feynman and an assistant to Albert Einstein, and Prof. Kurtz, a former student of the computing pioneer John Tukey, saw great potential in computers for advancing teaching and research, but they realized that this would require a whole new level of accessibility.

Basic was the first programming language designed specifically for nonengineers and nonSHYmathematicians. It was easy to learn ("LET X = 5," "IF X = 5 THEN Z = 10," "PRINT X"), and at the same time, mainframe computers were starting to use timesharing--a system that let them more quickly handle multiple requests from terminals (a novel form of which was created by a team of Dartmouth undergraduates). As a result, an environment of interactive and available computing took over the campus. The pieces were in place for a global transformation as wide-ranging as the Industrial Revolution.

At Dartmouth, faculty, staff and students were given easy access to the computer and terminals around campus and were encouraged to use them as they saw fit. The lasting legacy of Basic was that it opened up the world of computing to the full range of creative exploration. Early on we saw the harbingers of most modern computing phenomena: Users created games (an early computer football game was a particular campus favorite) and initiated computational projects in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. A new Dartmouth Kiewit Computer Center became a place that students would go to impress their dates--perhaps the first computer dating "site."

Interest spread beyond Dartmouth. Remote computer access via phone lines was soon given to the local Hanover High School, and a first generation of "computer kids" was born. Hints of an Internet can be seen in the consortium of Northeast schools (including Exeter and Mount Holyoke) that sprouted up to regularly use the Dartmouth machine.

The rapidly growing excitement around computing quickly created a market for time-shared computers. Basic formed the guts of a fledgling computer business called Micro-Soft. A homegrown Basic compiler shipped with the first computers from a company called Apple Computer, Inc. Versions of Basic proliferated throughout the world and live on to this day.

But Professors Kurtz and Kemeny never profited from Basic. The thought of controlling the idea and implementation of Basic was antithetical to the two men's vision for the democratization of computing. Moreover, Prof. Kemeny's sincere patriotism fueled an ethos that federally funded work (including Basic) was the property of the people.

Prof. Kemeny in particular was a vocal advocate for computer literacy. Basic was the culmination of his decadelong and largely successful effort to bring the ideas, techniques and, ultimately, technologies of modern mathematics into the liberal arts curriculum--and more broadly into the education of the next generation of citizens and political leaders. He was among a group of pre-World War II Hungarian Jewish émigrés, including Edward Teller and John von Neumann, who were consumed with the achievement of global stability. Prof. Kemeny saw an education in computing as the foundation of future global cooperation, if not peace.

In the 1969 documentary film "Educating the Computer," Prof. Kemeny says, "Looking forward 20 years, I am quite certain that the coming of the computer will have a significant effect on all businesses and most private lives. Whether these effects will be fully favorable as they could be or in part harmful will depend on whether those who make policy decisions are aware of what computers can do and what they cannot do."

The state of affairs of our modern world of ubiquitous computing shows that the father of Basic had a pretty good idea of the kind of Pandora's box he was opening.

Prof. Rockmore is the William H. Neukom '64 Professor of Computational Science at Dartmouth College.

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