In August 2014, Dartmouth College published a video commemorating the 50th anniversary of the BASIC programming language, the subject of this month’s Vidéothèque section. It features original footage from the 1960s and interviews of former students and team members, including Professor Thomas Kurtz, who was 85 years old at the time. But the heart and soul of the video is, without any doubt, Professor John Kemeny himself; not only his technical contributions, which were outstanding by every standard, but also his open personality and progressive spirit.
Jennifer Kemeny, daughter of Professor Kemeny and also a Dartmouth alumni, tells the story of how her father went from Budapest to the USA, and from Princeton to the Manhattan Project and finally to Dartmouth. His book “Man and the Computer”, published in 1972, tells the story of a lecture by John von Neumann about computers that had a strong impact on the future career of her father.
Professor Kurtz states the core democratic idea behind BASIC; non-computer scientists, those who will not be working in technical fields, should know what a computer is and how to program it. But computers were hard to come by during the mid-1950s, and so he started his career transporting decks of punched cards every week to MIT, with an effective data transfer rate of… 1.67 bits per second. Gotta start somewhere.
The decision was made in 1958 to get a computer, and Dartmouth first bought a Librascope LGP-30, most famously used to correctly predict the 1960 United States presidential election results in New Hampshire. It was on the LPG-30 that Dartmouth started experimenting with programming language design: Stephen Jay Garland famously created an ALGOL compiler for it, which Kemeny found unfit for teaching purposes.
At some point, the LPG-30 proved to be too small for Dartmouth and its growing student base, and John McCarthy suggested to Kurtz to try this new concept called “time sharing”. This required a more powerful computer, and after some lobbying at the NSF for funds and a request to various vendors, they chose a General Electric GE-265 computer.
Having ruled out ALGOL and even a simplified version of FORTRAN for students to use, Kemeny started two projects in parallel at Dartmouth: the creation of the DTSS, or “Dartmouth Time Sharing System”, and the BASIC programming language. These two projects were designed, coded, debugged, and tested by a team consisting of many undergraduates at Dartmouth, many of whom were interviewed for this video: Robert Norman, Anthony Knapp, George Cooke, Robert Hargraves, William Zani, Charles “Kip” Moore, Keith Bellairs, Ronald Martin, John McGeachie, Richard Lacey, Sydney Marshall, and Steven Hobbs.
Such an unlikely team turned an expensive, single-user computer, and transformed it into a time-sharing system for the whole university to write BASIC code. Take for example the code shown in minute 28:01, with an implementation of the bisection method, used to find the root of a polynomial written on the blackboard behind Professor Kemeny at minute 28:33. A quick verification shows, however, that this algorithm does not work, as it converges to -1; line 70 must be changed to
IF FNF(X) < 0 THEN 100, which yields the value 0.733156681, very close to the actual root. The curious reader is invited to try this code on the BBC Micro emulator, or to solve the polynomial on Wolfram Alpha. We can only hope that the student in question realized the mistake, and could complete the assignment in time.
William Zani, one of the core programmers of the first BASIC compiler, tells the story of the demo of the DTSS system at the San Francisco AFIPS 1964 conference (minute 26:17), sending a BASIC program to from San Francisco to Hanover, New Hampshire over a telephone line, live in front of an audience, who (I quote) “went bananas”.
BASIC and the DTSS were the first effort to bring computers to the masses, and it was all made possible by undergraduates. Dartmouth had, back in 1964, the first undergraduate program based on computers in history. And of course, since Kemeny allowed use of the DTSS to all students without limitations, some even wrote games for it.
Even more important, high schools around Hanover started connecting to the DTSS over phone lines, providing access to computers for countless young students in New Hampshire. The result was that, well before Micro-soft got off the ground, millions of students all over the world were using BASIC daily.
Looking forward 20 years, I’m 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.
To avoid spoilers, watch the video until the end, and listen carefully to the anecdote told during the final credits. There was much more to Professor Kemeny than his raw, unparalleled genius, worthy of his membership to The Martians.
There is no shortage of interesting videos online about BASIC. On the “8-bit Guy” YouTube channel, there is a popular video titled “The basics of BASIC”, showing actual examples of programs written in various dialects and microcomputers of the 1980s. The actual process of writing and debugging a BASIC program is best shown by a video on “The Coding Train” YouTube channel, called “What was Coding like 40 years ago?”, in which the host writes a version of the Snake game on an Apple II+ computer in real time. The history of QBASIC is better explained by Timberwolf.
Finally, those interested in Microsoft Visual Basic should check the original demo of Visual Basic 1.0 in 1991 by Bill Gates himself (and then compare it with Steve Jobs’ demo of the NeXTSTEP environment of 1989), and finally the oral history of Alan Cooper by the Computer History Museum, where it is revealed that Microsoft sent a cease-and-desist letter to prevent him from introducing himself as “The Father of Visual Basic”.
Cover snapshot chosen by the author.