Happy Birthday, BASIC, you wonderful language you!

I remember when I was ten or so years old. I asked my father a question that changed both of our lives. My Dad was an engineer. He was also what we would consider now to be a nerd. A geek.  Above all, though, he was very smart and he was MY Dad.  He could build anything out of what seemed to be random little bits of stuff.  To a ten year old, it was akin to magic.

So, what was that question?

“Dad, what’s a computer and how does it work?”

He didn’t give me a whole answer right away. If I remember, it was something like ‘a machine that can think, sort of.’ ‘Lets find out.’

Weeks later, he started getting packages. Those packages contained the magic wand, magic dust and … paper. Manuals, to be specific.

Out of those packages, my Dad built the Mark IV Mini-Computer, as written about in Radio-Electronics Magazine.  Now, this computer was primitive, even then. Something like 128 bytes of memory, which he expanded to 1K or something like that.  Anyway, that computer didn’t  answer our question.

So, he built another. And another.  That third computer, based on the Signetics 2650 microprocessor, was THE ticket.  This computer, had lots of memory (4K?) and, most importantly, had a keyboard and tv like screen. Oh, this thing called ‘Tiny Basic’.

I was hooked.  I eagerly soaked in all I could about this ‘Tiny Basic.’  I quickly learned that there were LOTS of Tiny Basics and even something just called ‘BASIC.’  So, what was this ‘BASIC’?

Simply put, BASIC was (well, IS) a computer programming language. And, during the 1970’s, it was pretty much the only way someone like myself could interact with the computer. It was easy to learn and use. I was typing in programs from my Dad’s books and magazine, having to alter them to work with the primitive version I had to use.  One day, I decided to start writing my own.  Finally, we had our answer. Collectively, we figured out what these computers were and what one could do with them. My Dad tackled the hardware, I tackled the software and, in the process, laid the foundation for my career.

And, it was all because of BASIC.

BASIC, developed in 1964 at Dartmouth University by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz. BASIC was designed for teaching the fundamentals of programming and to make the computer more accessible to non-programmer types.  It slowly grew out of Dartmouth and, by 1970, had spread all over the country.  It gained so much popularity, that it caught the eye and wrath of many professional who held it high in disdain. No matter, the genie was out of the bottle.

In the early 1970’s, when microprocessors became affordable and home computers took off, others were writing dialects of the language to run on these tiny machines.  The most notable being Micro-Soft Basic, co-developed by Bill Gates and Paul Allen and sold by MITS for the Altair computer. Unfortunately, it was priced so high that a black market for the language began, prompting a whiny ‘don’t copy our software’ letter from Bill Gates.  Whiny, but necessary. Software piracy was a huge deal at the time.

Around 1975-76, another dialect of the language came out and this one was affordable. Tiny Basic was a grass roots effort to develop the language so that it would work in very small memory footprints and on pretty much any computer.  Numerous version were released by companies and individuals.  Tom Pittman’s Tiny Basic was probably the most notable, followed by Lawrence Livermore Labs.  Oh, and the one that Steve Wozniak wrote for the Apple ][.

Kemeny and Kurtz hated the versions of their language for microcomputers, especially those of the ‘Tiny’ variety and anything out of Micro-Soft.  See, Micro-Soft, soon to be Microsoft, supplied a version of the language for pretty much all of the big commercial home computers: Apple, Atari, Tandy, Commodore, TI, Mattel and more.  Kemeny and Kurtz wanted to reel it back in with ‘True Basic’. Unfortunately, they discovered it was not that easy to do.

As time went on, however, the language grew and became a powerhouse for professional developers thanks to the efforts of Microsoft.

Microsoft included QBasic in its DOS product. They also had QuickBasic, which could compile code into true executables. For professional development, they had the Professional Development System, sort of a forerunner to todays Visual Studio product, only it was DOS based and character mode.

In the early nineties, they introduced Visual Basic, a Windows programming environment.  Shortly afterwards, Visual Basic for MSDOS was released. I had the opportunity to develop with this version for about two years. It was such a difference from what I was used to: object oriented and event driven. Suddenly, I had to think in terms of USER control of the application and not vice-versa.  It really opened my eyes as to how truly interactive computers could be.  Its overlapping text mode windows, mouse and relational database allowed me to create some really nice front end software for the video rental chain that employed me. It was a treat.

VBDOS didn’t live long.  Time and technology quickly outdated it.  VB for Windows evolved.  VB6 became THE development platform.  VB.NET was the future. Or, so we thought.

Microsoft’s run in with Sun Microsystems over Java led to the creation of C#: a modern programming language that was modeled after java with roots in C.  Interesting combo, but it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Microsoft was just trying to rattle Sun’s chains. That was my thinking. Boy, was I wrong.  Soon, the call for C# was on the rise while VB waned.

While BASIC no longer has the draw or the need, it is still there.  There’s a growing rank of people who are using as a hobby language again.  VBScript and VBA continue to dominate in the scripting arena. You really cannot beat it to do quick, repetitive tasks. It is great for automating mundane things.

And, Tiny Basic has made a come back of sorts. It is used on microcontrollers like the BasicStamp, Arduino and the PIC family of controllers.

While many probably wished it had died fifty years ago on May 1, it is far from death. In fact, this post is a celebration of not only its birthday, but the life it gave to an entire industry and its active future. 

I can’t say how much I owe this terrific language, it is truly immense. My life has been driven by many things, but I’d say BASIC was right up there with my parents and family as the most influential thing in my life.

Happy Birthday, BASIC!

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3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, BASIC, you wonderful language you!

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