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May 5, 2014

Fifty Years of the BASIC Language

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

Long before it was made popular by Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, the BASIC programming language was born at Dartmouth College in the 1960s. Its fathers were mathematicians John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of what was once considered the universal computer language. BASIC was a staple on all microcomputers back in the 1970s and early 1980s. It was included on ROM (part of the computer’s firmware) on the first IBM PC.

The reason? You could use BASIC to write your own programs. Lots of people did so, including myself.

BASIC was an attempt to make programming languages understandable to humans. It simplified a lot of things, used plain English. It followed a logical syntax. And, most importantly, it offered immediate feedback. That was something lacking in computer languages of the day, which tended to be batch-processed on a mainframe and often unclear as to where the bugs were buried.

When I purchased my first computer, it came with a how-to book on learning basic. Later, I worked for the author of that book, David A. Lien, at the publishing house he founded. One of my jobs was to do research for the The BASIC Handbook, which was an encyclopedia of the various BASIC dialects: Even though BASIC had one source, it was heavily customized.

In fact, BASIC was probably the least-standard computer language ever. Each hardware manufacturer added custom words, abbreviations, and shortcuts. BASIC ended up being a real soup of a language, which is why a title like The BASIC Handbook was necessary; it helped programmers translate from one dialect to another.

Going along with being so popular, the BASIC language was also universally despised. Not so much because it was easy to learn, but because it encouraged bad programming practices. It was easy to write sloppy code. Few professionals wrote code in BASIC, and if they did, they purposefully obfuscated the code, making it damn near impossible to read.

BASIC also ran slowly because it was an interpreted language. Optimizers and compilers were popular, but most serious programmers coded in Assembly language or some other compiled language, such as Pascal. The result was faster code, which everyone wanted.

In 1983, Kemeny and Kurtz attempted to make amends for BASIC’s faults. They created True BASIC, an improved version of their original. True BASIC addressed a lot of the shortcomings of the original BASIC, but it never really took hold.

The problem with True BASIC is that it was utterly incompatible with Microsoft BASIC, which dominated the market. So although True BASIC was a valid language and had its charm, it could never compete with Microsoft’s market domination — especially with the dawn of the IBM PC, MS-DOS, and the boom that would eventually become the PC industry.

Still, I’m sure lots of old timers remember the original BASIC. Love it. Hate it. It was the dawn of an era.

Time magazine article on the history of BASIC

Wikipedia’s TRUE Basic entry

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