Basic to BASIC: Dartmouth Celebrates 50th Anniversary of a Groundbreaking Computer Language
Dartmouth students access the computer from a remote computing center on campus. (Photo courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library)
Math professor and future Dartmouth president John Kemeny looks over a program written by his daughter Jennifer Kemeny '76 using the Teletype computer terminal at their home. (Photo by Adrian N. Bouchard/courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library)
Math professor Tom Kurtz works with Michael Busch '66, testing the new GE-225 computer in the basement of College Hall in 1964. Busch, along with John McGeachie '65, worked out the process that allowed different GE computers to communicate and helped build the original Dartmouth time-sharing system. (Photo by Adrian N. Bouchard/courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library)
Nancy Braodhead of New London stops on a teletype image of Snoopy while browsing a General Electric programing library before the premiere of The Birth of BASIC at Dartmouth College Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Broadhead worked in College Hall in the mid-1960's maintaining the program library.
(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
Tom Kurtz, right, who developed BASIC programming language with John Kemeny at Dartmouth College in the mid-1960's, talks with Tim Tregubov, technical director of the Digital Arts Leadership and Innovation Lab, left, about the Early Warning Project during an event to showcase Dartmouth computing projects in Hanover Wednesday, April 30, 2014. The Early Warning Project is a website that tries to predict atrocities in countries around the world by compiling and analyzing data based on contributing factors to unrest.
(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
Jenny Kemeny, of Etna, takes in the film The Birth of BASIC in the Hood Auditorium in Hanover Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Kemeny, a 1976 graduate of Dartmouth, worked on the programming project with her father John Kemeny.
(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
Brian Hayes of Boston, Mass., spends some time in the Hood Auditorium in Hanover on his laptop as the audience is seated for the premiere screening of The Birth of BASIC, a film by Bob Drake, Mike Murray and Dan Rockmore about the creation of BASIC computer language, on Wednesday, April 30, 2014.
(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
Fifty years ago this week, computing history was made on a couple of hefty machines in the basement of Dartmouth’s College hall (now Collis) at the northwest corner of West Wheelock and North Main streets.
The eureka moment came in the pre-dawn of May 1. It was on a Friday that year, 1964. Dartmouth was still all male; Lyndon Johnson was in his sixth month as president after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
A couple of math students, guided by two math professors, succeeded in bringing to life a computer language for mere mortals, non-nerds. It deployed simple commands like “hello” and “goodbye” rather than “login” and “logout.”
They called it BASIC, for Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. It ran on the Dartmouth Time Sharing System, a network of simple terminals connected to a large computer. It was a breakthrough event and the impact was global. One of the professors, John Kemeny, later became Dartmouth president; he died in 1992.
To commemorate that historic scientific achievement, Dartmouth on Wednesday afternoon staged an elaborate 50th anniversary jamboree in the Hood Museum auditorium and nearby facilities. More than 200 people showed up – alumni and faculty from the creation a half century ago, current faculty, students and community members — to reminisce about how it was, what it has become and where we are likely to be heading in this digital age.
The festivities included the premiere of a documentary, The Birth of BASIC ; a panel discussion by Dartmouth alumni involved in BASIC’s creation including Kemeny’s compatriot, Tom Kurtz of Etna, (both of them Princeton transplants), an emeritus math professor. Kemeny’s daughter Jenny, a Hanover High and Dartmouth graduate now living in Etna, also participated in the panel.
Afterward, the crowd gathered at the Top of the Hop reveling at current creations of Dartmouth student innovators — non-geeks majoring in sociology, economics and music, but demonstrating easy facility with coding and computers. So, for example, Eric Yang, of Fort Collins, Colo., who is majoring in biology and economics, demonstrated a new mobile app designed with assistance from a local psychiatrist; it aims to help people learn about causes of depression and explore options for dealing with it. Tracy Wang, a geography major from Shanghai, China, manipulated a “geo-visualization” computer program that quickly reveals the number of people using food stamps, and total cost, in every county in New Hampshire and Vermont, drawing on federal government data.
The celebration concluded with a panel discussion involving senior people from Google, Intel and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor proffering visions of computing 50 years from now.
“BASIC was, in a way, a logical development in a whole progression of computer activities that, until then, were designed mostly for specialists,” Kurtz recalled in an interview at his home. “We were still in the Sputnik era (the Russians had launched the first artificial satellite, called Sputnik, in 1957) and we were trying to catch up … so there was a lot of government money to support what we were doing.” A $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation helped fund the effort.
Before BASIC, Kurtz said, he used to transport batches of punch cards full of data to MIT in Cambridge for compiling and processing.
“They had an old IBM 704 machine and let us use it,” he recalled. “I would take the morning train from White River Junction at 6:20 and spend the whole day.”
(Dartmouth on Wednesday announced the establishment of a new distinguished faculty position in honor of Kurtz. It is part of a $10 million gift from William H. Neukom, class of 1964, to help the college establish an academic cluster in computational science, including two faculty positions besides the Kurtz chair and a postdoctoral fellow.)
Dan Rockmore, Neukom Professor of Computational Science at Dartmouth, who helped organize Wednesday’s festivities, recalled that in the 1960s most people had never encountered a computer.
“The machines were kept in secure rooms with DOD (Department of Defense) locks. Only guys in white coats were able to use them,” he said. “Kemeny said many times that he wanted to simplify computing and programming, make it easily accessible to everyone — all students, not just math majors, faculty, the community of large. It was the democratization of computing.” Some say it was the beginning of personal computing.
Rockmore said that when BASIC and DTSS (Dartmouth Time Sharing System) were fully functioning in the late 1960s, about 85 percnet of Dartmouth students were computing and “more than 90 percent of those were doing it correctly.”
Most of the BASIC pioneers in Wednesday’s panel used one word to describe the experience — fun. Students had open access to do research or homework, play a game or write letters to a girlfriend. Some brought their dates in the evenings to show off their programming skills. And it was spreading into other colleges as well as high schools, not just in Hanover but across the country, including Seattle, where one student — Bill Gates, started using BASIC.
Jenny Kemeny recalled programming a game for a social studies class at Hanover high.
“ It was a simulation about Columbus crossing the ocean, with tides, winds,” she explained. “I used it with some Hanover sixth-graders and they had a ball.”
No one had more fun than John Kemeny himself. He proudly showed a “BASIC” vanity license plate on his car and helped develop a football game called “ftball.”
“My father loved football, especially Dartmouth football,” Jenny recalled. “The math department would get blocks of tickets for home games and then take bets on first downs, interceptions, scores … there were plenty of martinis afterwards for the winners.” The day after Dartmouth beat Princeton 28-14 to win the Ivy League championship in 1965, “ftball” was unveiled.
“My recollection is that Kemeny stayed up all night to produce the game, “ Bob Norman of Lebanon, Dartmouth emeritus math professor, said in an email. “The player sat at a teletype machine playing for Dartmouth. For each play the ball was on some yard line. If it was Princeton’s play, he programmed the machine to choose a strategy for Princeton and then, using a random number generator, the outcome would be determined and the ball located for the next down. ... Occasionally, the teletype would announce, “time out, dog on field,” (dogs on the field apparently were common in those days). The probabilities were set up to make it more likely that Dartmouth would win … (but) it took some skill to win regularly.”
Many have wondered why Dartmouth didn’t seek a patent to protect its creation and make some money.
But, according to Rockmore, “that was not consistent with Kemeny’s vision. He saw the potential value not only to Dartmouth but to education generally and to society. And he strongly believed that free, open access and simplicity were the keys to achieving that potential.”
However, there were some downsides, which Kemeny and Kurtz later acknowledged in a book they published in 1985, Back to Basic. In one chapter entitled “What Went Wrong?” they complained about the inadequacies of some of the BASIC spinoffs for microcomputers. They also founded a local company, True BASIC, to offer their programming language as a commercial product. It was not successful financially, however, and was sold around 2002, according to Dartmouth grad Dave Cook, a software entrepreneur in New Haven, Conn.
True BASIC has a website where software, toolkits and books are sold.
“It is an updated version of the original and is an ideal entry level (computing) service,” said Jenny Kemeny.
The three panelists asked to speculate about what things might look like 50 years hence all announced that “no one can predict the future,” but then proceeded to do just that.
Daniela Rus, MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science, predicted that robots of varying sizes and complexity would dominate our lives, mainly for the good. “They will play with your cat when you are at work, play chess with you when you are up for it. They will enhance our lives.”
Michael Jones, Google’s chief technology officer, said that “by 2050, everyone (the world over) will have 100 percent access to computers and technology from birth. ... Education will be very different. As Einstein said, education will be a valuable gift, not a hard duty.”
Brian David Johnson, a futurist at Intel who said he was teaching BASIC at age 10, claimed that “everything will be smaller ... computers, chips but much more powerful. We will no longer ask ‘can we’ do this or that but ‘what should we do and why’ to help make peoples’ lives better. Our only limiting factor will be our imaginations. And don’t dismiss ideas that you think are crazy or stupid … that is where we often find real genius.”