50 Years Ago

In a world where new things happen at seemingly blinding speed, I’ll confess that the news that the BASIC programming language turned fifty years old this past week really threw me for a loop.  Wow!

BASIC wasn’t my first programming language.  Like many people, I started with Fortran and university introduced me to so much more.  COBOL, C, Lisp, Algol W, various assembly languages, B, WATFOR, WATFIV, Pascal, and probably more.

Yet it seems as though BASIC was always there.  Over the years, it has been a staple for the home computer and my data processing and computer science classrooms.  It comes as no surprise that I’ve enjoyed working with a number of variations – just look at this list of BASIC dialects.

Personally, I can recall using …

  • BASIC on my TRS-80 and the various levels of it
  • Commodore BASIC
  • Borland’s Turbo Basic
  • Watcom Basic
  • Microsoft’s QuickBASIC
  • Microsoft’s Small Basic
  • GW-BASIC
  • REALBasic
  • PureBasic
  • QBasic
  • (I hope that I remembered the capitalizations correctly!)

There are probably more versions if I put my mind to it.  I can recall long hours typing code from computer magazines, debugging typing mistakes, modifying code, writing my own and working to fix it, storing programs on tape, diskettes, and hard drives.

At school, it was a micro-economic business for the school store.  Every student needed to have their own flowcharting template, cassette tape and later diskettes to develop and store their intellectual property.  It was the day where making backups was so important and also a physical task that needed to be well documented.

BASIC served as a launchpad for so many to other programming languages, to effective scripting in spreadsheets, or to a resolution to never program a computer again.

Who needed a calculator?  Just key your formula at a BASIC prompt ? 45*23/75 and remember your order of operations.

In the early days of home computers, writing software was essential and BASIC was the language to use.  After all, it came with your computer.  Why wouldn’t you use it?

Later, BASIC served as ammunition for the programming snobs.  “It’s not a real language”; “spaghetti code”, “interpreter”, “compiler”, “mixed code and assembly”, “structured programming”, and more.  It got us talking about programming and put us on the search for the perfect language and perfect approach to teaching/learning about coding.  The search continues today….  Even now, when I sit down to write some code, I often wonder if I’m thinking in terms of pure logic and problem solving or the BASIC code that would make it happen.  There was a time where BASIC was the answer to every question.  (or so it seemed)

I remember sharing with my university class how SmallBasic could be run from a memory key to get around locked down computer images if needed…getting stares and rolling eyes as I was seen to go off on another nerdy rant…and then having three people come back from practice teaching to tell me that they had purchased class sets of memory keys so they could teach it.

There are so many fond memories that a knowledge of and use of BASIC has given me.  I often wonder what my level of computer understanding would be if I hadn’t been exposed to all this.  Better?  Worse?  What about the new generation of students?  Your typical new computer doesn’t come with a programming language.  There certainly are more alternatives now.

Sadly, these alternatives don’t always include a programming language and the whole new world that it opens.  I’m glad that I had my BASIC experiences.  Hats off to Darmouth and John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz.  You most definitely made a huge impact here.

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One thought on “50 Years Ago”

  1. i didn’t know, until I read this, that the formulas my husband taught me for using spreadsheets (in the days when I crunched numbers for report cards), rather than typing marks into a word-processing program, and using a calculator to crunch them (yes, I did that) were BASIC. Wow. Thanks for the lightbulb this morning.

    Like

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