The Beginners' All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code programming language, better known as BASIC, celebrates its 50th anniversary today after its humble beginning as an in-house tool at Dartmouth College.

A high-level language designed to be as accessible to beginners as possible, BASIC was the brainchild of John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz who wanted a language that would make it easier for students to make use of computing resources. First released in 1964, BASIC was nothing short of revolutionary in a time when many systems were still programmed directly in assembly - a laborious procedure that required intimate knowledge of the processor's instruction set.

BASIC began as a student project, with a team producing the language under Kemeny and Kurtz' leadership. Initially, the project was designed purely for use with the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System, the mainframe in use at the college, but as the software expanded in functionality its creators opted to release the software free of charge. This decision, hearkening back to an earlier era of free cooperation before the 60s boom in commercial software sales, helped make Dartmouth BASIC - as it became known - a common sight in mainframes and minicomputers around the world.

The BASIC language soon caught on with hackers, but it wasn't until the microcomputer boom of the late 1970s that it became a household name. Unlike the mainframes and minicomputers used by colleges, microcomputers were cut-down devices designed for use by a single person and affordable for purchase by well-heeled home users. The MITS Altair, generally considered to be the first home computer within reach of the average user, took off when a BASIC variant was produced by the little-known company Micro-Soft, written by co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen and their friend Monte Davidoff.

The vast majority of microcomputers released in the 1970s through to the 1990s came with a BASIC interpreter loaded in read-only memory; this immediate access to a programming language, the very first thing a user would see when the system was turned on, is credited with the subsequent explosion of interest in programming. Although some systems would opt for alternative languages, such as FORTH, BASIC was a de-facto standard - and one Micro-Soft, which would soon rename itself Microsoft, rode to considerable financial success by licensing its language variant.

For children of the 70s and 80s, BASIC will doubtless be best known thanks to long nights of typing in listings from magazines like Input, Creative Computing, and Commodore Format. Predating ubiquitous internet access, publishing printed books and magazines filled with programs written in BASIC was common - as were typography and printing errors which would lead to non-running programs and many sleepless nights until the correction appeared in next month's issue.

Today, computers have moved far away from the microcomputers of old. A modern system doesn't boot into a programming language, but an operating system with a full graphical user interface. That doesn't mean BASIC has died, though: even at the ripe old age of 50 the language is still going strong, powering macro programming in Microsoft Office and modern apps in variants like Visual Basic. There's even True Basic, an updated version of the original Dartmouth BASIC first released in 1983 and still commercially available today.

With 50 years of experience, here's to BASIC helping people get into programming for another 50 at least.
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October 14 2021 | 15:04