50 years of the computer language BASIC

Fifty years ago, mathematicians John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire introduced BASIC, a new language for programming computers. The name stands for Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.

At the time, computers were large, expensive machines, usually operated by trained professionals. Dartmouth College had two from General Electric, along with thirty-odd terminals. In 1964, staff prepared the new language especially for use by novices. By the next year, students and faculty could sit at a terminal, type in a program, and have it run almost immediately. Computer time-sharing, the process of having a single machine switch between programs from several sources, had been suggested in the late 1950s. It would become common in the course of the 1960s.

Kemeny and Kurtz’s 1965 manual for BASIC, Smithsonian image DOR2014-05495
Kemeny and Kurtz's 1965 manual for BASIC

The introduction of BASIC came at a time of rapid change in electronics. The invention of the transistor and then the microprocessor made it possible to build much smaller and cheaper calculators and computers. Versions of BASIC would be used with them. The first product of a company now called Microsoft Corporation was a version of BASIC for the Altair microcomputer. Other forms of the language sold for other personal computers.

rogramming tape with BASIC for the Altair microcomputer, ca. 1975, Smithsonian image 95-4900
Programming tape with BASIC for the Altair microcomputer, ca. 1975
Versions of BASIC for other early microcomputers, 1981-1984, Smithsonian image DOR 2014-05440
Versions of BASIC for other early microcomputers, 1981-1984

Authors also collected and distributed programs for games written in BASIC and played on minicomputers and microcomputers.

A book of game programs written in the BASIC programming language, 1974, Smithsonian image DOR 2014-05666
A book of game programs written in the BASIC programming language, 1974

By the 1980s, a few handheld calculators ran BASIC programs.

Casio FX-700P Programmable Calculator, ca. 1982. The alphabetic keyboard on the left, which made it possible to enter BASIC commands, Smithsonian image DOR 2014-05141
Casio FX-700P Programmable Calculator, ca. 1982. The alphabetic keyboard on the left, which made it possible to enter BASIC commands

The National Museum of American History opened in 1964, the same year the first BASIC programs ran. To commemorate the anniversary, we have put on display objects in the collections from the time. None of the objects described here is on display. To see what is, visit The Early Sixties: American Science in the museum or online.

Whatever happened to BASIC? With the advent of numerous accessible computer application programs, most computer users spend relatively little time consciously programming. As they use computers differently, fewer of them are aware of programming languages. However, versions of the language survive under names like True BASIC and Microsoft's Visual Basic. Even those who don't write programs enter formulae into Microsoft Excel in a form of Visual Basic for Applications.

Peggy A. Kidwell is Curator of Mathematics at the National Museum of American History. She has also blogged about COBOL or a COmmon Business-Oriented Language.

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