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BASIC Turns Fifty

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First created on May 1, 1964, the Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Set (BASIC) turned fifty years old yesterday. Originally created as a simple programming language on the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System for students at Dartmouth College, BASIC tried to be simple, using English words to take certain actions with a computer instead of mathematical functions. It also aimed to break free from the punched card era by allowing students to type in the commands at a terminal – although the initial version didn't have a REPL, and took the whole program in one go.

BASIC took off widely when a version was made available for the MITS Altair, the first real home computer. That version of the language was written by a newly formed company, Micro-Soft, by Paul Allen and Bill Gates. Soon every computer, from the ZX81 through the BBC Micro and Commodore had their own version of BASIC – similar enough that home users would be able to transfer knowledge between different computers, even if they weren't directly compatible with each other. In the pre-internet era, sharing code between machines was relatively unknown; either cassettes were loaded for a single computer, or listings were typed in by hand from computing magazines and books. Indeed, this author got his start by writing an article for Commodore Disk User, since made available by the archive project. (Those who remember the Commodore may be interested to read InfoQ's obituary of Jack Tramiel last year, founder of Commodore.) Now you can even find Commodore 64 emulators in JavaScript, if you want to re-live the BASIC experience.

Although many variants of Basic would exist, the original authors created True BASIC, to standardise the language and to provide compatibility. By the time that took off, more powerful home computers were being created that could handle more serious languages, like Pascal and C. But for many, BASIC was the first steps towards a lifelong love of computing.

These days, computer clubs like CodeClub, Hour of Code and Codecademy have started to try and foster interest in children young and old. Low-cost and easily accessible computing such as the Raspberry Pi have founded digital magazines like The MagPi, bringing write-your-own games to a new generation.

Dartmouth has been celebrating with 50 years of BASIC and a look forward to the next fifty years.

Did you learn to program with BASIC? What was your first experience?

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