Dartmouth Pops the Champagne as Basic Programming Language Turns 50

Basic, the programming language that revolutionized computing by making it accessible to people beyond the worlds of science and engineering, turns 50 this week, and it’s getting a birthday party.

Basic—an acronym for “Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code”—was developed at Dartmouth College by two mathematicians, John G. Kemeny, who was later Dartmouth’s president, and Thomas E. Kurtz, along with a team of undergraduates. It was done in tandem with the creation of a time-sharing system that supported multiple users who were running multiple programs at once. Previously, computing functions were executed one at a time, and could take days or weeks to complete.

The new system and the programming language were first tested in the early morning hours of May 1, 1964. Dartmouth is marking the anniversary with a daylong celebration on Wednesday. It includes a screening of a documentary on the origins and legacy of Basic as well as panel discussions on the current state and future of computing at Dartmouth.

Basic is credited with democratizing computing and with expanding it for uses in a variety of fields, including the arts and humanities, says Daniel N. Rockmore, chair of the mathematics department at Dartmouth, director of its Neukom Institute for Computational Science, and an occasional contributor to The Chronicle.

“Basic was designed to be a language that liberal-arts students would use, with the explicit goal of bringing computer programming and computer education into the liberal-arts curriculum,” says Mr. Rockmore. The idea was beyond unusual, he says. “Novel doesn’t actually even get to it. It wouldn’t be crazy to say that it was unheard-of.”

As part of the anniversary celebration, Dartmouth officials are asking individuals to reminisce about their experiences with Basic in an online guestbook. The memories shared so far speak both to the language’s humble beginnings in the basement of an austere college building and to the careers that it helped inspire.

“With 31 years in the computer and software business now, I still occasionally deal with code in modern variants of Basic,” wrote Richard H. Schwartz, a Dartmouth alumnus. “With all the changes that we’ve seen in computing, it’s nice feeling a connection to the history of something that’s been so durable.”

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