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New Hampshire Is First State to Install Highway Marker to Computer Programming

The roadside sign is dedicated to BASIC, a computer programming language developed at Dartmouth College in 1964

John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz, the creators of BASIC. (Dartmouth Library)
smithsonian.com

More than 250 highway markers scattered across New Hampshire honor people and places significant to the state, such as Frances Glessner Lee, the so-called “godmother of forensic science,” who summered at the Rocks in Bethlehem; Robert Frost, who lived in a farm just outside of Derry from 1900-1911; and the Civil War Mustering Camps in Concord. But as local columnist David Brooks argued in an August 2018 editorial for Granite Geek, “technical and scientific accomplishments”—in other words, the “geeky goodness” evident throughout New Hampshire’s history—are largely missing from the roster.

Now, Brooks reports for the Concord Monitor, this imbalance has been rectified with the installation of a roadside marker recognizing BASIC, a computer programming language developed at Dartmouth College in 1964, near the Hanover town line on the east side of Route 120.

According to the Verges Andrew Liptak, the sign appears to be the country’s first historical highway marker honoring computer programming. Philadelphia has a sign dedicated to BINAC, the world’s first “commercial, electronic, stored program, digital computer program,” and San José, California, has one commemorating IBM’s RAMAC storage system, but neither of these are specifically focused on a programming language.

Brooks reached out to Thomas Kurtz, a Dartmouth mathematician who created BASIC with the late John Kemeny, and Dartmouth itself to get the conversation started on the marker. Brookers then worked with Scot Drysdale, a computer scientist who recently retired from the university, to draft the sign’s suggested text and drum up public support for its creation.

Per the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources’ website, anyone can propose a marker providing they write a draft text that meets established spacing guidelines—including one or two lines for a title and up to 630 characters of supporting text—suggest a location for the marker, supply footnotes and a bibliography, and present a petition that’s gotten the signature of at least 20 state citizens.

Originally, Brooks and his colleagues hoped to honor both BASIC, or Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, and the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System (DTSS), an early internet precursor that enabled computers in different locations to share resources. But as Brooks notes for the Concord Monitor, the Division of Historical Resources decided it would be too difficult to describe both technical concepts in such a limited space.

The finalized sign, situated on a state highway near Dartmouth, lauds BASIC as one of the first “user-friendly computer programming languages.” BASIC made computer programming accessible to college students and, eventually, computer users all over the world, emerging as the “standard way” for people to learn basic (no pun intended) programming skills. Through 14 easy-to-understand commands, including “PRINT,” “LET”—for example, LET C = (A*2.5)+B—and “END,” the first version of BASIC introduced in 1964 opened up a world of previously inaccessible possibilities for the average programming amateur.

“BASIC wasn’t just a toy for classrooms,” Brooks writes. “It proved robust enough to survive for decades, helping launch Microsoft along the way, and there are descendants still in use today.”

“In short,” he argues, “it’s way more important than any covered bridge.”

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