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50 years of BASIC

  A century ago this month,  BASIC was born. Anand  Parthasarathy  takes a nostalgic  look back, at the golden years of the computer language that turned the  'rest of us'  into proud  programmers.

Dartmouth College in rural Hanover,  New Hampshire in the, US was  the unlikely locale where a computer lingo was born  half a century ago this week-- not just any language  but  arguably the most influential  programming language to touch the lives of the rest of us -- non- IT geeks, ordinary users of personal computers who touched a keyboard for the first time,  at least  30 years ago.

We then experienced  that peculiar pride that came after writing  a dozen lines of code, hitting 'RUN' and seeing  the programme we had written do  marvelous things: draw a smiley face,  convert Fahrenheit into Centrigrade,  calculate the average of 10 numbers...  and a lot of other fairly useless tasks which we might have performed  faster,  more easily, with pen and paper. But no!  we commanded a computer to do it and it obeyed our commands! It was a wonderful feeling.  More so because we were not computer professionals and never aspired to be --  just millions of lay users of emerging computer technology. 
BASIC was created just for us -- by  two professors at Dartmouth-- John Kemeny and  Thomas Kurtz --  who hoped  they could persuade students to interact with computers without  having to write complex machine code.   They drew on  an existing language -- FORTRAN or Formula Translation  -- and sort of dumbed it down to fewer instructions, They called their language  'Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code' or BASIC.

It was slow because  you first had to load what they called a compiler, to convert the English-like commands of BASIC into the ones and zeroes that  the computer understood. And at least in the early years you had no screen to see what you were entering.  The first programmes at Dartmouth  in 1964, were written by students  tapping away at a large mechanical monster called the Automatic Send and Receive or ASR  Teletype  which generated a   ribbon of punched paper tape which you then fed into your computer.

It was no different even a decade later when I  was doing the 'practicals' for my paper in computer science at Birmingham University, in the UK. But a small advance in technology had taken place and one generated a  pack of punched cards rather than a paper  tape. You  placed it in a tray at  the computer centre -- and overnight, some   young ladies  fed them in batches into a huge room-sized main frame computer (in a British university, it had to be an ICL rather than an IBM  machine) and  left you a printout to see how your BASIC programme had compiled. If one piece of punctuation on one , was wrong, it  flagged an error -- and your repeated the entire process  the next day till you got the BASIC coding right.

The makers of BASIC cannily anticipated the day  when you didn't have to go to a computer centre; when you could  run BASIC on your own mini computer or later on what came to be called a Personal Computer or PC. The  late 1970s saw a whole procession of these home machines. The first truly portable computer for  lay users was the Altair 8800  --  unveiled in a sensational cover story in the January 1975 issue of  Popular Electronics Magazine. The maker tweaked   the programming language that the machine  demanded and called it Altair Basic.  The machine had a row of    toggle  switches on the front panel, each with its own red bulb  and you entered  your code letter by letter,  using a four letter combination of ones and zeroes ... it was laborious work  that eased only after companies like  RadioShack, Tandy and Commodore in the UKS and Sinclair in the UK married the standard QWERTY keyboard to a  green  computer monitor and rolled out  the first personal computers ( see photo). Loading the compiler of the BASIC programme also became easier when punched cards and paper tape was replaced by a large floppy disk.

Indian pioneers                

Not  many  know or remember that an Indian company -- Zenith Computers -- brought the microcomputer to India  in 1980 ( complete with 2 8-inch floppy drives ) almost simultaneously with its "invention" in the US... nor that another Indian pioneer --  HCL , then Hindustan Computers Ltd -- offered the personal computer   to customers in India,  four years later, even before the first  so-called IBM Computers were  launched in the US. They called it  the Workhorse. By then, working for the  Naval R&D lab  in Kochi, I was thrilled to learn from HCL that the Workhorse (they threw in for free, a word processor that they called  "SECRETRY", the name restricted to 6 characters) that   we acquired   and that I used to use for many years, till HCL's  BusyBee came,  was  the first piece they sold in South India!  In fact their first BASIC product was the HCL 8C introduced at the same time as the Apple in 1978!

These early PCs -- and the  IBM-type PC for which Microsoft   provided the Disk Operating Software or DOS -- effectively killed the motivation to learn BASIC: they had taken personal computing to the next level, one of applications like word processing, spread sheets, presentations  which have  iterated to become the Office Suite  of today.

But in the  more creative, student-end of computing, they still wrote BASIC code to get sensors  to work, meters to read, relays to jump contacts.  And the intuitive nature of the language   made it a cinch for millions of non professionals  to write brief code.   By the  late 1980s, BASIC was no longer distributed with  PCs, because you didn't need it most of the time. But Microsoft  kept the language alive -- at least in some niches --  by  releasing Visual BASIC in 1991 and 'Visual BASIC  for .Net' in 2001. The hardcore programmers  meanwhile  had moved to C, C++ and later C# -- and after the Internet, to Web languages like Java and HTML. 

Today, our laptops, notebooks, tablets, even mobile phones, pack in incredible amounts of computing muscle. We  harness this power, unknowingly,  making ever-increasing demands on it,  but like turning a light switch on or off, we expect it for the price  we pay.

Among the dozens of  commemorative articles this month, a piece  in The Guardian  (UK) newspaper,  articulates the true significance of the 50th birthday of BASIC: It  reminds us of an earlier, more demanding era when  using computers  meant  creating rather than just consuming; writing  a dozen lines of  a BASIC  programme rather  than  merely enjoying  the end result of a  few million lines of code. (IndiaTechOnline)  May 9 2014



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