Knowing how to program a computer is good for you, and it’s a shame more people don’t learn to do it.
For years now, that’s been a hugely popular stance.
It’s led to educational initiatives as effortless sounding as the Hour of Code (offered by Code.org) and as obviously ambitious as Code Year (spearheaded by Codecademy). Last December, he issued a You Tube video in which he urged young people to take up programming, declaring that “learning these skills isn’t just important for your future, it’s important for our country’s future.” I find the “everybody should learn to code” movement laudable.
Once upon a time, knowing how to use a computer was virtually synonymous with knowing how to program one. Kurtz of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, BASIC was first successfully used to run programs on the school’s General Electric computer system 50 years ago this week–at 4 a.m. The two math professors deeply believed that computer literacy would be essential in the years to come, and designed the language–its name stood for “Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code”–to be as approachable as possible.
And the thing that made it possible was a programming language called BASIC. It worked: at first at Dartmouth, then at other schools.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, when home computers came along, BASIC did as much as anything else to make them useful.
Especially the multiple versions of the language produced by a small company named Microsoft.
Today, we expect computers–and phones, and tablets and an array of other intelligent devices–to respond to our instructions and requests as fast as we can make them.
In many ways, that era of instant gratification began with what Kemeny and Kurtz created.
Moreover, their work reached the public long before the equally vital breakthroughs of such 1960s pioneers as Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the mouse and other concepts still with us in modern user interfaces.
You might assume that a programming language whose primary purpose was to help almost anybody become computer-literate would be uncontroversial—maybe even universally beloved. BASIC always had its critics among serious computer science types, who accused it of promoting bad habits.
That’s when I was introduced to the language; when I was in high school, I was more proficient in it than I was in written English, because it mattered more to me.
(I happen to have been born less than a month before BASIC was, which may or may not have anything to do with my affinity for it.) BASIC wasn’t designed to change the world.
“We were thinking only of Dartmouth,” says Kurtz, its surviving co-creator.