50 Years Ago Today, the First BASIC Program Ran in a Dartmouth Basement

The computer language that led the hobbyist computer boom turns 50 today

Science Picture Co./Corbis

Computers speak binary—long strings of 1s and 0s that tell them what to do. Some people can speak binary, too. As the joke goes: "There are only 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don't."

But even if you can interpret and write binary, it's not a very efficient way to communicate, and over the years a huge array of programming languages have been developed to help bridge from symbols and words—more akin to human language—to the computer's binary realm.

In Hanover, New Hampshire, 50 years ago today, Dartmouth College professor John Kemeny ran one of the first programs written in one of the most significant of these computer languages: Dartmouth BASIC, an acronym for Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, says Jack Schofield for the Guardian. According to Dartmouth, here's what the program was:

  • 10 Print 2+2
  • 20 End

Dartmouth BASIC, designed by Kemeny and his colleague Thomas E. Kurtz, was one of the first easy-to-use computer codes, says Schofield, and when the early home computing boom began in the early 1970s, "Basic became the standard language for home users and hobbyist programmers.”

Over the years other tinkerers riffed on Kemeny and Kurtz' BASIC design, including Bill Gates and Paul Allen, whose Microsoft Basic was picked up by IBM in 1981.

Programming languages have grown up and multiplied incredibly since the middle of the last century, with many now being quite daunting to novice users. To get around this, and to try to inspire a new generation of hobbyists, some computer scientists are working on new simplified programming languages meant for kids.

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