Tech Talk: How BASIC gave Laymen Power

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On the list of ground-zero major benchmarks in computer history is Alan Turning, the man first conceived of algorithms who helped develop computer science with The Atanasoff-Berry Computer (famously created at Iowa State University) and the invention of readable programming code. Computer programmers celebrated one of these innovation’s 50-year birthday last week — the birth of “BASIC,” the programming language created by Dartmouth professors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz.

As opposed to generational gadgets eventually retired to landfills across the globe, programming languages never die. BASIC, along with COBOL, FORTRAN and others, were invented decades before the Internet and are still used today. What sets BASIC apart, though, is that it changed computer programming from mainframes and punch cards to readable code requiring no advanced degree in mathematics to understand.

BASIC computers were literally giant calculators that read cards with holes punched in them, which took hours to compute. They used human language to feed information to computers: For example, typing “new” told the computer you were starting a new program. Computer programming became simplified, so virtually anyone could do it.

Due to its learning ease and use, BASIC started a revolution in computer functionality and science as a whole. Within a year, the concepts for popular programming languages such as Java, C and Visual Basic were developed, each a building block of Microsoft Windows making nearly every consumer software application available today.

Just as BASIC lowered the programming barrier to entry, new developing advances are close to erasing it. Code schools and hacking classes, such as Code Academy and Treehouse, provide ready-made code examples to help programming hopefuls get on their developing feet. Even more astonishing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s App Inventor application completely removes the need to know any programming language, replacing them with visual interfaces and graphical modules that hide backend code.

So, even if tomorrow’s programming no longer requires code literacy, so much of that is owed to BASIC. CV  

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. For more tech insights, follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb


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