Basic: A tidbit

Thomas E. Kurtz (left) and John G. Kemeny, developers of BASIC

On 1964-05-01 mathematicians John G. Kemeny (1926 – 1992) and Thomas E. Kurtz (1928 – ) successfully ran a program written in BASIC = Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, on Dartmouth college’s General Electric GE-225 mainframe computer.

Deception is a key word to describe General Electric’s (GE) computers. GE was founded 1892-04-15 in Schenectady, New York. In the 1960s, Chairman Ralph J. Cordiner (1900 – 1973) had forbidden GE from entering the general purpose computer business. General Manager of GE’s Computer Department in Phoenix, Arizona, Homer R. “Barney” Oldfield (1916 – 2000) claimed that the GE-200 series would produce industrial control computers. When Cordiner discovered he had been duped, he immediately fired Oldfield. Despite this, production of the computer series continued as a profitable venture for several years.

For the technically interested, only. The GE-225 used a 20-bit word, of which 13 bits could be used for an address. Along with a central processing unit (CPU) the system could also contain a floating-point unit (FPU) = Auxiliary Arithmetic Unit (AAU). Alternatively, there was a fixed-point decimal option with three six-bit decimal digits per word. It had eleven I/O channel controllers. The machines were built using about 10 000 discrete transistors and 20 000 diodes. They used magnetic-core memory, and a standard 8 kiloword system held 186 000 magnetic cores. A base level mainframe weighed about 910 kg. GE sold a variety of add-ons including storage disks and printers.

I imagine that both GE and the computer department at Dartmouth were attempting to use each other. GE probably wanted a functioning operating system, but didn’t have the human resources to make it. Dartmouth College wanted a computer, but didn’t have the money to buy it. The result was a compromise that benefited both. In 1963, Kemeny applied for a National Science Foundation grant to bring a GE-225 computer to Dartmouth and build a general-purpose time-sharing system, essentially an operating system. This time-share approach was to allow others (Read: faculty and students) to access the mainframe computer and run programs using BASIC. It just took a year to implement.

While Dartmouth College copyrighted BASIC, it was made freely available to everyone. The name originated from Kurtz’s wish for a simple but meaningful acronym. Kurtz, in an open letter, reiterates that BASIC was invented to give students a simple programming language that was easy to learn. It was meant for amateurs, not computing professionals.

Language standards were created: The European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA), was founded in 1961 to promote computing standards in Europe. They released their version of BASIC standards in 1986. This was followed in 1987 by the American National Standards Institute ( ANSI) releasing its version of the standards. In 1991, ECMA was renamed ECMA International.

In 1975, Paul Allen and Bill Gates adapted BASIC for personal computers like the Altair 8800. I am uncertain of Gates’ motivations. At this early stage, he undoubtedly appreciated BASIC, as he fell into the amateur category, rather than being a professional (system) programmer. My perspective is that he capitalized on the work of others: Kemeny and Kurtz with BASIC; Tim Paterson (1967 – ) with a Quick and Dirty Operating System (QDOS) at Seattle Computer Products, that became MS-DOS for Microsoft.

In 1976, Steve Wozniak developed a BASIC interpreter for the Apple I which subsequently became Integer BASIC for the Apple II in 1977. More BASIC followed with the personal computer (PC), in 1982.

In 1991, Microsoft developed Visual Basic. Over the years new variants emerged such as Microsoft Small Basic, in 2008. It teaches beginners programming concepts. Basic and similarly languages are important because they emphasize simplicity, readability, and ease of use.

Kemeny and Kurtz’ work on BASIC was recognized by the American professional association for electronic engineering and electrical engineering (IEEE) as part of their milestone program which marks historic places for human innovation from around the world. Places honored include Thomas Edison’s lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he invented the light bulb and phonograph, and the hilltop outside Bologna, Italy where Guglielmo Marconi sent the first transatlantic radio transmission. On 2021-02-22 a plaque was placed outside of the computer lab at Collis Center, 2 N Main St, Hanover, NH 03755, U.S.A. The citation reads: Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC) was created in this building. During the mid-1970s and 1980s, BASIC was the principal programming language used on early microcomputers. Its simplicity and wide acceptance made it useful in fields beyond science and mathematics, and enabled more people to harness the power of computation.


Kemeny was president of Dartmouth College from 1970 to 1981 and pioneered the use of computers in tertiary education. He chaired the presidential commission that investigated the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown of the Unit 2 reactor (TMI-2) of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station on the Susquehanna River, near Harrisburg, PA. The reactor accident occurred 1979-03-28, and released radioactive gases and radioactive iodine into the environment, resulting in the worst accident in the American commercial nuclear power plant history.

I have written about Dartmouth College before. The Synclavier synthesizer was developed there.

2 Replies to “Basic: A tidbit”

  1. In about 1973-4, I decided to study computer programming as well as accounting. My first programming classes were using BASIC. However, I soon found out that I preferred accounting to programming and dropped learning more programming after trying BASIC, Assembly and COBOL.

  2. What fun with so many memories with no idea where to start … or why, for who would care?
    “My” first computer was a Bendix G15. The quotes are needed because it was donated to the school where I was teaching and no one else wanted this 1950s dinosaur. It loaded programs from paper tape punched on a teletype, used vacuum tubes and had a drum memory. This was the mid-1970s and it would sometimes run for ten minutes or so without an error. (This was a “Let’s see if I can do it” project … meaning getting it to work,)
    The same people who donated that also donated two Digital Equipment PDP-8s, the hitch being we could keep one if we could get the other going and give it back. That was fun and, again, way more time getting them going than doing anything useful with them. We did program the one we kept to play music … I think that was its most “important” application.
    Another “Let’s see if I can do it” project was designing my own computer using a microprocessor – a Z-80 as I recall. “Doing it” was really just a task in perseverance as integrated circuits made success a certainty. With a Selectric typewriter for I/O, the results looked nice.
    I wrote a basic-looking language … also not difficult. The biggest challenge was writing the arithmetic functions … trigonometric, logarithms, etc.
    It worked, but the only useful purpose I put it to was calculating and printing a compound-interest loan for a guy I loaned money to so he could by a car. Once it worked, I lost interest as my programmable HP hand-held calculator was far more convenient, excepting it didn’t produce hard copy.
    I wonder what makes these “walking down memory lane” so appealing.
    OK, back to the present!

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