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April 28. 2014 7:47PM

Dartmouth plans celebration for 50th anniversary of BASIC computer language

HANOVER — On Wednesday, Dartmouth College is celebrating the 50th anniversary of BASIC, a computer language created at Dartmouth that has gone on to become the world’s most widely-used computer language.
BASIC had its start in 1964 when on May 1 the first commands of the new computer language were executed in the pre-dawn hours in the basement of College Hall. BASIC was the brainchild of Dartmouth mathematicians John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, who had a vision of universal access to the college computers for students, faculty and staff, professor emeritus Kurtz said Monday.

Many undergraduate students worked under the professors and helped bring that vision to life, he said.When they started working on BASIC in 1963, computer technology was dominated by punch cards, he said.

Dartmouth computers were used for research and could be accessed in the computing center, but to use the computers you had to create programming on punch cards, which was both time consuming and highly technical. Often the work would be done by graduate students working as assistants to professors, Kurtz said.
But Kemeny and Kurtz envisioned a wider use of computers, by more people. The technology of computers was rapidly changing and the prices were coming down.

“What we decided to do was build a computer system for the college in which access would be universal for students,” Kurtz said. “We also wanted to make computing available where the people were and not force them to come to the computing center to do their work.
”They aimed for a simple system that wouldn’t intimidate users with less technical expertise and used straightforward and intuitive commands like LIST, RUN and PRINT.

Instead of LOG ON and LOG OFF, this system used the commands HELLO and GOODBYE.

This allowed people with no math or science background to learn how to code computer programs.

They also developed Dartmouth’s timesharing system, which allowed more than one person to work on a computer at a time. The punch card system was known as batch processing, Kurtz said.

Using Dartmouth’s software, General Electric set up a country-wide timesharing system. Kurtz said it was the beginning of the personal computer era.

A Wednesday afternoon celebration of BASIC at Dartmouth will include a look at yesterday, today and tomorrow, Kurtz said, and will include Kurtz, some of the students who helped develop BASIC, Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon, and current industry leaders.

The afternoon will kick off at 1 p.m. with the premiere of a documentary film on BASIC. Kurtz plans to lead a post-film discussion with his former students.

Next, an interactive session is planned featuring innovative computing projects by current Dartmouth students across multiple disciplines. The afternoon will conclude with a panel on the future of computing with experts from Google, Intel, and MIT.

mpierce@newstote.com


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