Kemeny and Kurtz flipped the switch on the first BASIC program on May 1, 1964, at 4AM. Not long after, they made the language available for free to the larger computing community. As outside users tweaked and modified the language into other dialects, the original was dubbed Dartmouth BASIC.

BASIC revolutionized computing by making computers feel less institutional, and more like a tool the average human could use. Harry McCracken at TIME explains this shift far better than I ever could:

In the mid-1960s, using a computer was generally like playing chess by mail: You used a keypunch to enter a program on cards, turned them over to a trained operator and then waited for a printout of the results, which might not arrive until the next day. BASIC [. . .] both sped up the process and demystified it. You told the computer to do something by typing words and math statements, and it did it, right away.

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.


As mainframe computers (the room-sized leviathans of the 1960s) led to minicomputers (smaller and cheaper than the first generation) and then microcomputers (what we think of as the earliest PCs), BASIC became near-universal: a variant of the language helped launch Micro-Soft, a company that went on to shed the hyphen in its name and make a well-known guy named Bill exceedingly rich.

Today, most computer users don't see raw BASIC code when they turn on their machines. Probably nobody waits by the mailbox for a magazine or book full of code to arrive. Instead, BASIC lives on in the background, powering unseen machinations in Microsoft Office and appearing in coding apps for hardcore computer nerds.


While BASIC may no longer be the de facto coding language of choice, I think it's safe to say Kemeny's goal of universal computing has been largely achieved. If it hadn't, you probably wouldn't be reading this right now. [TIME; Bit-Tech]

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