The History of the BASIC Programming Language

Old compueters
The advent of the personal computer was crucial to the success of BASIC. (Tim Martin/Aurora/Getty Images)

In the 1960s, computers ran on gigantic mainframe machines, requiring their own special rooms with powerful air-conditioning to keep them cool. The mainframes received their instructions from punch cards by computer operators, and any instructions given to a mainframe required writing a new piece of software, which was the realm of mathematicians and nascent computer scientists. 

BASIC, a computer language written at Dartmouth college in 1963, would change that.

Beginnings of BASIC

The language BASIC was an acronym for Beginner's All Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. It was developed by Dartmouth mathematicians John George Kemeny and Tom Kurtzas as a teaching tool for undergraduates. BASIC was intended to be a computer language for generalists to use to unlock the power of the computer in business and other realms of academia. BASIC was traditionally one of the most commonly used computer programming languages, considered an easy step for students to learn before more powerful languages such as FORTRAN. Until very recently, BASIC (in the form of Visual BASIC and Visual BASIC .NET) was the most widely known computer language among developers.

The Spread of BASIC

The advent of the personal computer was crucial to the success of BASIC. The language was designed for hobbyists, and as computers became more accessible to this audience, books of BASIC programs and BASIC games surged in popularity.

In 1975, Paul Allen and Bill Gates, the founding fathers of Microsoft,) wrote a version of BASIC for the Altair personal computer. It was the first product Microsoft sold. Later Gates and Microsoft wrote versions of BASIC for the Apple computer, and IBM's DOS which Gates provided came with its version of BASIC.

The Decline and Rebirth of BASIC

By the mid-1980s, the mania for programming personal computers had subsided in the wake of running professional software created by others. Developers also had more options, such as the new computer languages of C and C++. But the introduction of Visual Basic, written by Microsoft, in 1991, changed that. VB was based on BASIC and relied on some of its commands and structure, and proved valuable in many small business applications. BASIC .NET, released by Microsoft in 2001, matched the functionality of Java and C# with the syntax of BASIC.

List of BASIC Commands

Here are some of the commands associated with the earliest BASIC languages developed at Dartmouth:

    HELLO — log in
    BYE — log off
    BASIC — start BASIC mode
    NEW — name and begin writing a program
    OLD — retrieve a previously named program from permanent storage
    LIST — display the current program
    SAVE — save the current program in permanent storage
    UNSAVE — clear the current program from permanent storage
    CATALOG — display the names of programs in permanent storage
    SCRATCH — erase the current program without clearing its name
    RENAME — change the name of the current program without erasing it
    RUN — execute the current programs
    STOP — interrupt the currently running program