05/12/2021

025 – BASIC building blocks – 1964

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The most amazing achievement of the computer software industry is its continuing cancellation of the steady and staggering gains made by the computer hardware industry.”  Henry Petroski

At the start of WWII Hungarian-born John George Kemeny escaped to the USA where he worked on the Manhattan Project alongside John von Neumann and others.  He became Albert Einstein’s mathematical assistant at Princeton before moving to Dartmouth College’s Department of Mathematics where he became department head and later was the president of the college.

Kemeny helped John McCarthy obtain a Sloan fellowship to MIT where he went on to develop the LISP language and also made a number of the key advances in artificial intelligence.

Thomas Eugene Kurtz, US born, became director of the Computer and Information Systems program at Dartmouth; it set ot to train the information system leaders for industry.

Kemeny and Kurtz cooperated to develop the Dartmouth Time-Sharing Service, seeking a better way for students from outside science faculties to use computers and the DTSS.

By 1964 they had developed BASIC, Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, which was an amalgam of their knowledge of FORTRAN II and ALGOL 60.  They decided to make the software available royalty-free so it might be widely adopted.  It became marginalised by being known as ‘Dartmouth Basic’; at a stroke this opened the door to other versions, notably Microsoft. 

BASIC was quickly introduced by manufacturers like DEC for its PDP mini-computers, Data General for the Nova.  Hewlett-Packard used it for HP Time-Shared Basic.  Progressively it changed its nature from being a compiler to becoming more of an interpreter.

This was the format that Paul Allen and Bill Gates would use when they developed BASIC for the MITS Altair 8800.  They brought BASIC to a wider audience, allowing non-computer users to programme.

1983 Kurtz and Kemeny founded the company True BASIC Inc and created True BASIC as an updated version of the original language.

Software in early mainframe days was disregarded as a product; it was something bundled with hardware to make it function.  By the end of the 1950s there were two hundred programming languages in use, each dedicated to a specific task and a specific host.

1968 The term ‘software engineering’ was first coined at a NATO conference called to discuss why software developments were not keeping pace with hardware advances.  The term took on wings when in 1969 IBM decided to unbundle its package approach and to sell software and services separately from hardware. 

Software now had its own price and costs for support.  Thus it would have its own branding, requiring licences and payments.  IBM was seeking to decouple software cost iand make its hardware pricing more attractive against minicomputer systems.

This created a multi-million dollar industry for independent computer software and services companies.  IBM pointed out that, while this did open up the market to a host of others, the company was still able to maintain market leadership.

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