College celebrates half century of BASIC language

by Sean Connolly | 4/29/14 6:42pm

While pulling an all-nighter 50 years ago today, former mathematics professor John Kemeny and then-student programmer Thomas Kurtz ’63 forever altered the accessibility and prestige of computation.

In the wee hours of May 1, 1964, the pair received correct answers to programs run simultaneously on two neighboring terminals. With this innovation, time-sharing computing and the BASIC computing language — standing for the Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code — were launched.

This afternoon, a series of presentations from Dartmouth faculty, students and national experts will mark the 50th anniversary of BASIC at Dartmouth.

The conference’s theme is past, present and future computing, computer science department chair Tom Cormen said. The afternoon will begin with the premiere of a documentary on the history of BASIC, created by filmmakers Bob Drake, Mike Murray and mathematics department chair Dan Rockmore.

After the screening, Dartmouth’s DALI and Tiltfactor labs will host demonstrations.

The day’s events conclude with a panel that includes professor Brian David Johnson, a futurist with the Intel Corporation, Google’s chief technology advocate Michael Jones and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Daniela Rus, who directs the university’s computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory.

The panel will speculate, taking questions on where they think computing will be in another 50 years, Cormen said.

BASIC, which was first developed by Kemeny, who would later serve as the 13th president of the College, and Kurtz.

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The language quickly became widely popular for its accessibility and ease of use on any computer, though the code was designed mainly for the College, Kurtz said in an interview with TIME Magazine.

For students at the time, BASIC and time-sharing computing made playing with and using computers much easier.

John McGeachie ’65 Tu’75, a co-founder of the Dartmouth Time Sharing Software, said the innovations cut down wait times that characterized the card computing systems.

“You didn’t have to drive some place to pass your program in,” he said. “You could do all that in 10 minutes.”

Time sharing, created by Kurtz, allowed a system’s processing power to be used by several people at one time, so separate programs could run at once.

McGeachie, who currently works in software engineering, said that before coming to Dartmouth he did not know what he wanted to do. He said he knew he found his passion when he began working in the Dartmouth system.

“That changed my life — it was absolutely fabulous,” he said. “All I wanted to do was work with computers.”

McGeachie said the use and proliferation of BASIC had an observable effect on Dartmouth students at the time, noting that it was not uncommon for students to use these machines for classes or to write programs for fun.

“I think the impact was to prove that ordinary people could use computers,” he said. “Very quickly, high school students were using it.”

Cormen said Kemeny and Kurtz’s innovations paved the way for people to interact with computers.

“No one had a computer,” he said. “Just the idea that you would have access was hilarious.”

Describing their work’s long-term influence, Cormen cited the popularity and portability of computer science today. Students can program anywhere, no longer restricted to a computer center in the basement of a college building.

DALI lab executive director Lorie Loeb, noted Dartmouth’s historically significant role in computer science innovation, which she attributed to strong faculty-student relationships.

Simone Wien ’16, a computer science minor and Tiltfactor intern, said her classes have given her a strong foundation and allowed her and others to use technology creatively.

Students often create projects from classes, she said. “We have people who are computer science majors who show that connection. It really enhances the idea of gaming and play.”

Kurtz did not respond to requests for comment by press time.