Roughly 40 years ago (at 4 a.m. on May 1, 1964) two professors with the help of two students wrote computer history at the Darmouth College. The thing they invented was the computer language BASIC (Beginners' All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code).
Basic ran on the Dartmouth Time Sharing System, a network of multiple simple terminals connected to a large computer, Kurtz explained. "The development of Basic was a natural step in a whole progression of computer activities that began when I arrived at Dartmouth in 1956," he said. "The whole thrust was to try to make computing easier for people, particularly nonscience and nonengineering people."
Around 1960 or so, Kurtz said, he and Kemeny realized that the only way to do that was to develop a time-sharing system that would be especially geared toward small student jobs rather than the "big research stuff."
"The idea was that a time-sharing system made it easy for students or anybody else to get to the computer," Kurtz said. "The user interface to the time-sharing system was very simple. Instead of using things like 'log in' and 'log out,' we used [simple English-language functions] like 'hello' and 'goodbye.'
There was a need for a relatively simple language, and that's why they developed BASIC. Basic was at first a compiled language that used simple commands like LIST, SAVE, RUN, END and PRINT.
"The whole business just exploded," Kurtz said. "Everybody started using it, and it drew a lot of attention from around the country. The whole thing grew just enormously fast -- far beyond anything we'd ever expected."
Kurtz said the companies that first started making personal computers decided they would have to have a version of Basic on their machines because it was a relatively small language -- there weren't a lot of extra features on it.
"It became the language of choice for all the personal computers that were being introduced, and it just took off," he said. "Basic certainly got millions of people around the world involved in computing."
While original Basic may no longer be in widespread use, Visual Basic remains a popular programming platform. But with the introduction of new technologies, as well as new languages, PCs, spreadsheets, word processing applications and the like, Kemeny and Kurtz's original Basic is used only in isolated locations now.
"Kids now want to learn Java in order to construct a browser application, or HTML, so Basic is really much less important than it was 20 years ago," he said.