Remembering… BASIC

BASICDavid Hayward recalls writing programs that insulted classmatesThere’s a popular educational movement at the moment to get the current generation of students back behind keyboards and programming. The likes of the Raspberry Pi and the attention attracted by the BAFTA Young Games Designer and Concept awards has somewhat helped to force a change in the curriculum.In many ways, you could say that the programming revival of the 80s has come back around and is enjoying a new found fame, buoyed by many new programmable boards and utilities designed to get children into programming.
Of course, those of us who are a little long in the tooth will recall the programming boom of the 70s and 80s, sat in front of our ZX81s, ZX Spectrums, C64s and so on at home, tapping out a lengthy string of code into the wee hours. There was also the coding in the classroom, though, with six of us huddled around an overheating BBC Micro trying to work out the error in the thousands of lines of code we’d spent the last six months entering.
To some, Assembly was the way forward. A hardened programmer knew their machine code, but for the rest of us, BASIC was king.
The vast majority of you reading this will no doubt recall going into the local Tandy or Woolworths and playfully entering:Of course, you’d substite ‘Mike’ with some other poor kid, whose time it was to have their name scrolling down the screen for the general public to view.
That was the essence of BASIC back in the day and although a lot of folks never got past that point, some of us did indeed try to program some form of a game from the many-lined commands at our disposal.
BASIC (Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, as if you needed telling) was actually invented, or rather designed, in 1964 by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Back then, the majority of programming was done with punch cards or by physically turning one of many dials on a mainframe. However, BASIC was designed for those who were less technical, but still wanted to get the computer in question to complete a task.
It was based on Fortran II, with a few ingredients from some other programming languages around at the time. It was logical, mathematical and was perfect for teaching the then generation of students how to interact with the many mini computers that were being adopted by schools, colleges and universities around the world.
Of course, it proved to be so popular that it was soon integrated into the operating systems of the home computers that started to emerge in the late 70s and early 80s. The more notable ones were the Sinclair, Commodore and BBC machines, the latter of which had the remarkable ability to mix both BASIC and Assembly in the same code structure.
Even DOS enjoyed its own version of BASIC, which kept the language alive well into the modern PC era. Microsoft went a step further with Visual Basic, evolving the base language while still leaving links to its heritage.
These days, though, it’s not as common as it once was. Things like Python and Java have taken precedence, with better support for multiple platforms, as well as offering more scope for programmers.
It was remarkably easy to use, and you could pick it up very quickly. It didn’t need extra compilers and so on; it just worked.• Kemeny actually contributed to the Manhattan project and was Einstein’s mathematical assistant.• Not everyone liked BASIC. Some even believed that computing shouldn’t be made easier for everyone to have access, and that non-scientists or even women using a computer was asking for trouble.• The Goto statement was one of the most hated commands among the anti-BASIC crowd. It created a messy, spaghetti code, they said.• Three of the first home computers that came with BASIC were Apple II, PET 2001 and the TRS-80.

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