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50 Years Of BASIC


NPR's Joe Palca is in our studios and he's brought along a piece of paper. Joe, what's it say?

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: It says, let X equal seven plus eight divided by three.

INSKEEP: It sounds like kind of a mathematical equation there.

PALCA: It's actually a line of computer code and it was part of the first very short program ever run in a language called BASIC.

INSKEEP: OK. Which is what we're going to talk about here, because Joe has a project he calls Joe's Big Idea. He's been tracing the history of some of the world's most important inventions, and today is the 50 anniversary of this computer language called BASIC, which Joe, sounds kind of basic.

What's the big idea?

PALCA: Well, it's pretty interesting history. And the way to get the real story is to talk to the guy who invented BASIC, so that's what I did.

THOMAS E. KURTZ: My name is Thomas E. Kurtz and my title is, believe it or not, Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Emeritus. Blah(ph).


INSKEEP: OK. He doesn't like being Emeritus, but he's going to explain why BASIC, 50 years ago, was such a big innovation.

PALCA: Right. Because when Kurtz first got to Dartmouth in 1956, this is what you have to do if you wanted to run a big computer program, you have to drive 125 miles from Hanover to Boston to use a computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

KURTZ: They had to go to Building 26 at MIT and leave a deck of punch cards on the counter at the door of the computer center.

PALCA: Steve, do you remember punch cards?

INSKEEP: No. But I remember people who remember punch cards.


INSKEEP: I can picture them, you know, a card with a bunch of holes in it, basically.

PALCA: That's exactly right. The holes were a code that the computer could understand. So Kurtz would drop off these cards and drop them off at the Computer Center at MIT...

KURTZ: And then come back two or three hours later, and pick up the listing of the results the computer might have produced, if indeed there wasn't an error in the program and all you got is error messages printed on the piece of paper. Then you would go back home and two weeks later you would repeat the process. So that's what we were doing.

PALCA: And the idea was that BASIC was going to change that.

KURTZ: We would bring the computing to you via a teletype machine that was hooked up to the telephone network.

INSKEEP: OK, clearly a different kind of computing than on your average iPad today. What's a teletype?

PALCA: Well, it's the same idea. You're sending instructions to a computer somewhere else, a lot of times, like in the cloud.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

PALCA: But in this case, it's sort of a hybrid of a typewriter and a printer where the language goes out the computer and comes back and prints out in the text in front of you on a piece of paper.

INSKEEP: Sends you the information from some giant room somewhere where the huge computers those days were cranking away at slow speeds.

PALCA: Right. And this is what the teletype sounded like.


PALCA: So Kurtz says the other thing he and his co-inventor John Kemeny did with BASIC was to try to use commands that made sense.

KURTZ: If they wanted to write a new program, they typed new, and if they wanted to terminate their session, they typed goodbye, instead of logoff. Now what does logoff mean? C'mon, give me a break. So hello and goodbye instead of log on and log off. And the whole point of this was to make computing easy for Dartmouth students, Dartmouth faculty, Dartmouth staff, and even Dartmouth janitors.

INSKEEP: What he's saying is they found a way to talk to a computer, more or less, in English. It's English that's being used.

PALCA: Right. And they let people who didn't know anything about computers start to use them.

DAN ROCKMORE: People who absolutely never would have engaged with a computer before were now engaging with computers on campus.

PALCA: That's Dartmouth Professor Dan Rockmore. He says BASIC was an immediate sensation.

ROCKMORE: It spread so quickly that the telephone company had to start putting in new trunk lines in Hanover, so that everybody who wanted to get on the computer could get on the computer.

PALCA: So do you remember your first experience with BASIC?

ROCKMORE: Oh absolutely. I was in Mr. Bullman's class in Metucheon High School and I'm almost sure that I wrote a program to play poker.

INSKEEP: I'm beginning to sense the relevance to now here, Joe Palca, when you talk about this guy creating a program to play poker. What you're saying is that by creating this language that lots of people could use, lots of people could create new applications for computers. This little handheld computer I have in my hand, a phone, has all these apps. They could be games. They could be a weather forecast. They could be any number of things.

PALCA: Right. The program BASIC that was created 50 years ago, was the start of opening up the world of computing to anybody who wanted to try it. Now there are dozens of languages out there now, they do many, many more sophisticated things than BASIC was able to do, but BASIC was the starting point.

INSKEEP: Joe, thanks very much.

PALCA: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: He creates Joe's Big Idea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.

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