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Mark Jones Lorenzo

The history of the BASIC programming language is, at best, scattered across countless books, a consequence of the disdain and arrogance of generations of programmers who loudly advocated for the dismissal of such a lesser language. Or maybe it is not, and it just so happens that the language was so wildly influential that it is impossible to elaborate on any computer in the past 50 years without coming across the path of a BASIC dialect at some point.

Let us review some places where we can find BASIC popping its ugly uppercase smirk.

In the main article of this month’s edition, we have mentioned the description of BASIC on page 229 of Jean Sammet’s major opus of 1969. In chapter 5 of Federico Biancuzzi’s “Masterminds of Programming” (2009), we have a precious interview with BASIC creator Thomas Kurtz. The gorgeous coffee-table book “Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation” (2020) by Alex Wiltshire and John Short dives into a unique moment in history, where BASIC was omnipresent throughout our industry.

Anecdotes surrounding Apple’s rocky relationship with BASIC abound: Chapter 11 of Steve Wozniak’s candid autobiography, humbly titled “iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It” (2006), describes the animosities around his Integer BASIC for the Apple II on page 177; this is confirmed by Walter Isaacson in his biography of Steve Jobs (2011), on page 84, where Steve Jobs reminisces about the irritating lack of floating-point arithmetic in it. All of this concluded with Andy Hertzfeld’s memories about “The Sad Story of MacBASIC” on the folklore.org website and on page 254 of “Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made” (2004).

It would be impossible to name them all, but suffice to enumerate some historic hallmark books around the language:

Yes, most of the books above were printed during the 1970s and the 80s. By the mid-1990s, the ascendance of the World Wide Web and Java had eclipsed BASIC almost completely; the rise of Python, Ruby and JavaScript dealt the final blows. We had to wait until the 2010s to witness a regain of interest in the language through two major books.

The first is the memorable “10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10” (2012) by Nick Montfort, Patsy Baudoin, John Bell, Ian Bogost, Jeremy Douglass, Mark C. Marino, Michael Mateas, Casey Reas, Mark Sample, and Noah Vawter, a book dedicated to a single line of Commodore 64 BASIC code; a title so unique that deserves an entry in this Library section of its own.

The second is the subject of this month’s Library article: “Endless Loop: The History of the BASIC Programming Language” (2017) by Mark Jones Lorenzo, a professor of mathematics and computer programming from Pennsylvania.

History books come in various shapes and forms. Most are usually related to a person (like William Aspray’s 1990 biography about John von Neumann), a company (like James Cortada’s 2017 book about IBM), a location (like PARC in Michael Hiltzik’s 2005 book “Dealers of Lightning”) or a particular event (such as Mar Hicks’ 2018 “Programmed Inequality”). However, in the past twenty years, we have seen quite a few books dedicated to a single technology, software package, or programming language. Suffice to mention Brian Kernighan’s “Unix: A History and a Memoir” (2019), David Kushner’s book about Doom (2003), Jordan Mechner’s story of how he made Prince of Persia (published in 2020), or John MacCormick’s book about algorithms (2011).

Are we maybe reaching the point where the software engineering discipline is old enough to yield such historical compendiums? Or is it just a matter of fashion?

Mark Jones Lorenzo’s book fits perfectly well into this new category. In this humble, delightful, albeit well-researched volume, the author spared no efforts to find countless sources and to tell the yet untold story of BASIC. The book starts with the biographies of Kemeny and Kurtz, the roads that led them to Dartmouth, and the description of the circumstances that took them to create the language. The author is certainly an expert in the matter, having published two other books about Microsoft’s GW-BASIC titled “Not Ok” (2015) and “Ok” (2017), plus the history of another famous programming language: FORTRAN, published in 2019.

(It is noteworthy, and maybe not a coincidence, that another fundamental work of our era, Jamie Woodcock’s “Marx at the Arcade” (2019), a book Graham talked about last year in this section, borrowed Mark Jones Lorenzo’s “pixel art style” of its cover.)

“Endless Loop” roughly organizes the history of BASIC around the dialect du jour at every step of the way: starting with Dartmouth BASIC, we move to Tiny BASIC, Microsoft BASIC, IBM BASIC, Visual Basic, and finally Small Basic. Fifty years of evolution of a language in a book that desperately fights to save it from an undeserved state of oblivion.

American union leader Nicholas Klein once famously said that

First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.

BASIC deserved better than to be dismissed and vilified by generations of so-called “professional” or “academic” programmers. Mark Jones Lorenzo’s “Endless Loop,” together with the myriad of available implementations of the language, and the collective impetus of retrocomputing fans to keep it alive in our memories, are the closest thing to a monument that it will ever get.

Cover photo by the author.

Continue reading Issue 058: Community or go back to Issue 059: BASIC. Did you like this article? Consider subscribing to our newsletter or contributing to the sustainability of this magazine. Thanks!
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