50 Years of BASIC, the Computer Programming Language That Changed the World

    11 May, 2014


    From VOA Learning English, this is the Technology Report.

    May 1st marked the 50th anniversary of a special computer language. The new code was designed to permit college students not trained in mathematics to use computers.

    50 years ago, computer owners were mainly governments, businesses and universities. Programmers wrote pages of commands in mathematical expressions to operate these early computers.

    John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz were two professors in the mathematics department at Dartmouth College. They wanted students in other departments to be able to use their school's computer. So they developed a simpler set of computer commands called Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, or BASIC.

    50 Years of BASIC, the Computer Programming Language That Changed the World
    Tom Kurtz and John Kemeny examine a brochure for the GE-225 mainframe computer that powered the initial version of Dartmouth’s time-sharing system (Adrian N. Bouchard / Dartmouth College)

    "We deliberately invented a language that was almost devoid of many of the technical details that were present in other languages," said Kurtz.

    BASIC puts English commands, such as IF...THEN, or GO...TO, into a numerical language computers can understand. Mr Kurtz says almost everyone at Dartmouth College began using computers.

    "Not only our students loved getting onto the computer any time they wanted to, for whatever purpose they wanted to, but even the faculty got interested. Of course not everybody, but many of them," Kurtz said.

    BASIC was a major step toward the development of personal computers. Peggy Kidwell is the Curator of Mathematics at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. She says BASIC was created just as computers became fast enough to perform many commands at the same time.

    "Now, that whole notion that anybody could run a computer permeates the whole world. And I would say that is not the immediate legacy of BASIC but it is a part of what was involved in building up on BASIC," said Kidwell.

    Mr Kurtz and Mr Kemeny released BASIC to the public for free, the computer language quickly became very popular. Mr Kurtz says they hoped the language would solve what they saw as a major upcoming problem.

    Mr Kurtz says he and Mr Kemeny believed that the computer would become very important in the world. He says most people didn't know anything about computers because they were only used by experts.

    The speedy development of computers was followed by many improved versions of BASIC. Over the years, code writers created other easy to use computer languages.

    Today, few people use BASIC, but personal computers owe their existence to the first programming language that anyone could speak.

    And that's the VOA Learning English Technology Report. For more technology stories, go to our website 51voa.com. I'm Jonathan Evans.