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Celebrating 25 years of celebrating computation

Brian Hayes

The BASIC Story

The programs I've been describing are simple, small and straightforward; writing them requires no arcane wizardry. On the other hand, writing them is not quite as easy as it ought to be, because the tools available for this kind of programming have not kept up with progress in software technology.

For inquisitive programming, the great age of innovation came and went in the 1960s. The best-known artifact of the era was the BASIC programming language, created in 1964 by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz of Dartmouth University. Kemeny and Kurtz set out to broaden the spectrum of computing enthusiasts; they were especially eager to draw in students in the liberal arts and the social sciences. (Calculemus!) Their new programming language was meant to lower the barriers to entry.

But the language was just the start. BASIC was designed in conjunction with the Dartmouth Time Sharing System, an early experiment in interactive computing. Elsewhere, batch processing was still the rule: Deliver your shoebox of punchcards in the afternoon, pick up a ream of printouts in the morning. DTSS and BASIC offered a direct connection to the computer via a teletypewriter or, later, a video terminal. Programming became more like a conversation with the computer. Compared with most other computing environments of the time, it was well suited to an exploratory style of problem solving.

BASIC spread from Dartmouth to other universities in the 1960s, then it gained a mass audience a decade later when Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote a BASIC interpreter for microcomputers. This was the first product of the company that became Microsoft. The initial model of the IBM PC had a BASIC interpreter permanently inscribed in read-only memory; indeed, this was the only software supplied with the machine (even the operating system was an extra-cost option).

Whatever happened to BASIC? Its main attraction was also its undoing. As a language for beginners, it had the taint of training wheels. And it attracted the scorn of those who wanted to make programming a professional engineering discipline. Edsger Dijkstra, the curmudgeon-in-chief of computer science, groused: "It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration."

BASIC didn't disappear, but in response to such acid critcism, it was transformed beyond recognition. In the 80s we got "structured BASIC." Later, when the next fad swept the world of software, BASIC became an "object-oriented" language, with features for creating windows and menus and other gadgets that make up a graphic user interface. The surviving versions of the language are doubtless superior in many ways, but they have become tools for software development rather than for inquisitive programming.

Several other languages of the 1960s also offered an environment suited to inquiry rather than development. Logo has suffered a fate similar to BASIC's: It was designed as a programming language for children, and so adults were reluctant to take it seriously. In fact Logo is a very expressive language, an offshoot of Lisp.

Lisp itself (invented in the late 1950s) is my own favorite language for inquisitive programming. Most Lisp systems allow an incremental and interactive style of work: You write and test individual procedures rather than building monolithic programs.

There's also APL, a terse mathematical notation invented by Kenneth Iverson in 1962. Again, APL was intended mainly for problem solving rather than software development.

All of these languages still exist; indeed, each of them has its devoted following. But they are not where the energy is in computing today. As niche products, they have a hard time keeping up with changes in technology and attracting investment. Meanwhile, facilities for other kinds of programming grow steadily more luxurious. If you develop software in Java or C++, you get leather upholstery, walnut paneling and a dozen cupholders. If your vocation is inquiry-based programming, you sit in a folding chair.

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