John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz

The man ignorant of mathematics will be increasingly limited in his grasp of the main forces of civilization.
John Kemeny

John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz in the late 1960s
John Kemeny (left) and Thomas Kurtz in the late 1960s

In 1962, John George Kemeny (a Jewish-Hungarian American mathematician, computer scientist, and educator, born as János György Kemény) (1926–1992), chairman of the Dartmouth College Mathematics Department, and his colleague Thomas Eugene Kurtz (b. 1928) submitted a grant to NSF, for the development of a new time-sharing system, with the aim of providing easy access to computing facilities for all members of the college. Its implementation began in 1963 by a student team under the direction of Kemeny and Kurtz. On 1 May 1964, the system, named Dartmouth Time-Sharing System, or DTSS for short, originally implemented to run on a GE-200 series computer (GE-200 series was a family of small mainframe computers of the 1960s, manufactured by General Electric) began operations and remained in operation until the end of 1999!

Having removed one of the main barriers to computer use, Kurtz and Kemeny went on to simplify the user interface, so that a student could essentially learn enough to use the system in no time. But writing programs in the computer languages then in use was a quite challenging task. Kurtz initially tried to simplify certain existing languages, namely Algol and FORTRAN, but eventually decided together with Kemeny that a new, simplified programming language was needed. The resulting programming language was called BASIC (an acronym for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) and has become the most widely used language in the world.

Kemeny teaches BASIC programming to students in Dartmouth College (Photo courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library)
Kemeny teaches BASIC programming to students in Dartmouth College (Photo courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library)

The BASIC language was initially based on FORTRAN II, with some influences from ALGOL 60 and with additions to make it suitable for timesharing systems like DTSS. Initially, BASIC concentrated on supporting straightforward mathematical work, with matrix arithmetic support from its initial implementation as a batch language and full string functionality being added by 1965.

The Golden Era of BASIC came with the introduction of the first microcomputers in the mid-1970s. BASIC had the advantage that it was fairly well known to the young designers and computer hobbyists who took an interest in microcomputers.

In 1983, Kemeny, Kurtz along with several others formed True BASIC, Inc., with the intention of creating a personal computer version of BASIC for educational purposes.

BASIC is a very powerful language as tool for novice programmers. BASIC allows for a wide range of applications, and it has many versions. For example to write a program to print the phrase “Hello World” infinitely, one has to enter only two lines of code (which was a rather effective style for programming languages of the 1960s):

10 PRINT "Hello World!"
20 GOTO 10

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, as Leonardo used to say, although… Notice the use of the GOTO statement, common in BASIC, but cursed with the advent of structured programming languages in the late 1960s and 1970s.