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.
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