The BASIC programming language is often considered as the language of the 80’s. That’s because the idea of the personalized computer started gaining momentum during that era, introducing a wave of the uninitiated to the world of GOTO. We’ve already shared an article about how magazines used to post BASIC code for enthusiasts to translate into working code. To memorialize the language that taught thousands how to program, New Hampshire Department of Transportation installed the first ever highway marker commemorating a programming language.
However much a footnote this news appears to be, one cannot discount the monumental impact that Dartmouth Professors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz and a group of graduate students had on computer science. In 1963, Kemeny and Kurtz not only developed BASIC to make programming more accessible to the average student, they also built a time sharing system that acted as a precursor to the internet.
The Dartmouth Time Sharing System(DTTS) was built by Kemeny, Kurtz, and graduate students to provide equal access to computing. Two of the key goals of the project was to make the time sharing system free and open-sourced. The program also came packaged with the first Integrated Development Environment(IDE). IDE commands had such a fast response time that many users believed that IDE commands were in fact BASIC commands and that the terminal was the actual computer. In that case, a brand new computer in the 80’s showcasing,
10 Print "Hello World!"
20 Goto 10 would have in fact been displaying a terminal.
Where DTTS truly became the prototype of today’s internet was in the formation Kiewet Network. As DTTS spread across several high schools and colleges, users of DTTS were connected via teletypes, modems, and dial-up lines. Both Kemeny and Kurtz stressed the importance of extending beyond the technically-inclined. The idea was to remove the stigma that computers often garnered. BASIC and DTTS allowed 80% of Dartmouth students to become experienced in programming by 1968. That’s because using a computer was synonymous with knowing how to program. The fear that Kemeny and Kurtz really wanted to dispel was the fear of coding. There’s something to be learned about making programming accessible to non-technical students in our era of IT. Now that computers have been enhanced with GUI, there’s been a much less greater emphasis on teaching students how to use computers.
Unbeknownst to the creators of BASIC and DTTS, they had created the concept of personal computers. You can get a sense of this new phenomena in Kemeny’s brochure: “…any student may walk into the Kiewit Computation Center, sit down at a console, and use the time-sharing system. No one will ask if he is solving a serious research problem, doing his homework the easy way, playing a game of football, or writing a letter to his girlfriend.”
David Brooks, contributor to Concord Monitor, spearheaded efforts to have BASIC enshrined in a highway marker. He’d also attempted to get DTTS mentioned along with BASIC, saying, ” Our original idea was to mention both BASIC and the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System…[h]owever, the N.H. Division of Historical Resources, which has decades of experience creating these markers, said it would be too hard to cram both concepts into the limited verbiage of a sign.”
Though Edsger Djikstra may have had a few gripes with BASIC, he cannot deny that the language introduced a flood of people to a world that often seems alien to outsiders.