BASIC programming language is 50 years old

Kemény János

BASIC, one of the best-known programming languages in the world, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. One of the most popular and still widely-used languages of the DIY computers? era was first published in 1964 (Dartmouth College).

BASIC was designed by János Kemény of Hungarian origin, and his American colleague, Thomas E. Kurtz. The new language was created with the aim to enable students other than mathematicians to write simple programmes on the university?s computers. Fundamental concepts were taken from the second version of FORTRAN released in 1958 and from ALGOL 60 with additions of elements to make the language suitable for timesharing.

The acronym BASIC (Beginner’s All Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) for the language came from an earlier paper Kurtz had produced. The choice of name, BASIC being a meaningful word in English, was no coincidence. The original version of BASIC was indeed basic, only able to do basic arithmetic computations. It was so basic that character string functionality was only added to it in 1965.

Popularity was not due to the maturity of the language in the first place, but thanks to the free of charge availability of the translator programme for anyone interested. This came in handy for computer manufacturers since they could include software in their machines without paying heavily for licences.

With the spread of microcomputers in the 1970s, the language became popular with hobbyists who built their own computers and produced innumerable versions of the language, and often implemented significantly enhanced language versions. Bill Gates and Paul Allen were also among them, who set up a business called Micro-Soft to sell their BASIC interpreter for Altair computers, and subsequently for several other microcomputers.

Paul Allen

In the 1980s practically all newly marketed microcomputers possessed a built-in BASIC interpreter, programming in other languages was only possible if you purchased translators and interpreters as extras. Computer magazines at their prime time published an awful lot of smaller and larger scale programmes written in BASIC language. This language was also learnt in the first place by students who engaged in computer clubs at the initial stage.

In the course of time, BASIC underwent a great deal of significant improvement, but it could never be freed of its initial legacy. Consequently, its role was gradually taken over by newer, higher level languages (and mainly ones able to support object-oriented programming) in the early 1990s.

Although Microsoft gave BASIC a second life through the release of Visual Basic, VBScript, and VBA scripting languages, development of the latter was discontinued before the turn of the millennium. The firm made another attempt to revive the language in 2001, but VB.NET proved to be a failure, mainly because the simplicity of the basic language was lost yet its limitations and cumbersome features remained.

Today BASIC is mainly of nostalgic or hobby value to most programmers although it is still available for numerous platforms, including smart phones. However, it is practically no longer used for writing complex programmes or ones that are meant for the wider public.