May 17, 2014

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How BASIC Opened Up Computers to All of Us (DAN ROCKMORE, May 16, 2014, WSJ)

Fifty years ago, at 4 a.m. on May 1, 1964, in the basement of College Hall at Dartmouth College, the world of computing changed forever. Professor John Kemeny, then the chairman of the mathematics department at Dartmouth and later its president, and Mike Busch, a Dartmouth sophomore, typed "RUN" on a pair of computer terminals to execute two programs on a single industrial-sized General Electric "mainframe" computer. The programs were written in Basic (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), a fledgling computer language designed for the everyman, by Prof. Kemeny, Professor Tom Kurtz and a team of eager students.

Back then, using a computer was almost exclusively the privilege of a select minority of scientists and engineers who were conversant in the early languages of assembly code and Fortran. Prof. Kemeny, who had been a programmer on the Manhattan Project for Richard Feynman and an assistant to Albert Einstein, and Prof. Kurtz, a former student of the computing pioneer John Tukey, saw great potential in computers for advancing teaching and research, but they realized that this would require a whole new level of accessibility. [...]

At Dartmouth, faculty, staff and students were given easy access to the computer and terminals around campus and were encouraged to use them as they saw fit. The lasting legacy of Basic was that it opened up the world of computing to the full range of creative exploration. Early on we saw the harbingers of most modern computing phenomena: Users created games (an early computer football game was a particular campus favorite) and initiated computational projects in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. A new Dartmouth Kiewit Computer Center became a place that students would go to impress their dates--perhaps the first computer dating "site."

Interest spread beyond Dartmouth. Remote computer access via phone lines was soon given to the local Hanover High School, and a first generation of "computer kids" was born. Hints of an Internet can be seen in the consortium of Northeast schools (including Exeter and Mount Holyoke) that sprouted up to regularly use the Dartmouth machine. [...]

But Professors Kurtz and Kemeny never profited from Basic. The thought of controlling the idea and implementation of Basic was antithetical to the two men's vision for the democratization of computing. Moreover, Prof. Kemeny's sincere patriotism fueled an ethos that federally funded work (including Basic) was the property of the people.
Posted by at May 17, 2014 6:59 AM
  
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