Wednesday, April 30, 2014

50th anniversary of BASIC and, more important, computer literacy courses

On May 1 1964 two simple BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) programs ran simultaneously on the Dartmouth time-sharing system (DTSS) -- marking the birth of the BASIC language, created by professors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz.

That is an important milestone, but the BASIC language was only a part of the invention of the notion of computer literacy and of computer literacy courses.

To put this in the context of the time, only professional programmers and operators used computers in 1964. Nearly all programming and computing was done using batch processing -- you typed a program into punch cards, added some control cards and data, and fed the card deck into a computer card reader or transferred it to magnetic tape to be fed into a large computer. You typically dropped your job off to be run by an operator and picked up the results -- printed, punched in cards or written on tape -- some time later.

Card deck ready to submit for compiling and execution

A steady stream of jobs insured that the computer was kept busy, but programmers wasted hours waiting to get their output.

But, by 1964 there were several experimental time-sharing systems where users sat at terminals and typed in programs and data and got answers immediately. The computer allocated a small slice of time to a terminal, then went to the next, and so forth.

While switching rapidly between users meant some wasted computer time, it meant programmers could get immediate results and they could write interactive programs.

Kemeny and Kurtz realized that this meant non-specialists would be able to program and use computers in the future and they decided to create a computer literacy course that would be taken by all students at Dartmouth, not just the engineers and scientists.

For that to happen, they needed a time-sharing system of their own and a simple, teaching-oriented language, so they built the DTSS and invented BASIC with funding from the National Science Foundation.

BASIC was not intended to be used in production -- it initially had only 15 statement types -- it was intended solely to teach algorithmic thinking and introduce the notion of a stored program.

Once DTSS and BASIC were running, they were able to offer the first computer literacy course with the goal of teaching the skills and concepts needed for success as a student and after graduation as a professional and citizen.

I teach a digital literacy course today -- the skills are different than they were in 1964 and many (though not all) of the concepts are new, but the goal remains unchanged.

For more on computer literacy, BASIC and DTSS, see:
Update 5/6/2014

There is an "Easter egg" at 2m 18s of the above video -- a picture of Bill Gates and Paul Allen at a Teletype at Lakeside School. No doubt they were writing BASIC programs, although they would not have been running on DTSS.

The Dartmouth public computer room -- probably the first campus student lab:

John Kemeny worked on the Manhattan Project, was Einstein’s mathematics assistant as a student, and was Professor of mathematics and President of Dartmouth College.

Thomas Kurtz studied under John Tukey at Princeton, has been professor of math, computer science and Computer Information Systems and computer center director at Dartmouth.