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13-Nov-2017 11:40

But BASIC as it came to be was profoundly influenced by the fact that it was created at a liberal arts college with a forward-thinking mathematics program.

Dartmouth became that place largely because of the vision of its math department chairman, John Kemeny.

Once upon a time, knowing how to use a computer was virtually synonymous with knowing how to program one. Kurtz of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, BASIC was first successfully used to run programs on the school’s General Electric computer system 50 years ago this week–at 4 a.m. The two math professors deeply believed that computer literacy would be essential in the years to come, and designed the language–its name stood for “Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code”–to be as approachable as possible.

And the thing that made it possible was a programming language called BASIC. It worked: at first at Dartmouth, then at other schools.

Moreover, their work reached the public long before the equally vital breakthroughs of such 1960s pioneers as Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the mouse and other concepts still with us in modern user interfaces.

You might assume that a programming language whose primary purpose was to help almost anybody become computer-literate would be uncontroversial—maybe even universally beloved. BASIC always had its critics among serious computer science types, who accused it of promoting bad habits.

Nobody conspired to get rid of it; no one factor explains its gradual disappearance from the scene. When it comes to technology, I don’t feel like a grumpy old man.

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(Kemeny died in 1992.) “We needed a language that could be ‘taught’ to virtually all students (and faculty) without their having to take a course.” Their brainchild quickly became the standard way that people everywhere learned to program computers, and remained so for many years.Born in Budapest in 1926 and Jewish, Kemeny came to the United States in 1940 along with the rest of his family to flee the Nazis.He attended Princeton, where he took a year off to contribute to the Manhattan Project and was inspired by a lecture about computers by the pioneering mathematician and physicist John von Neumann.Knowing how to program a computer is good for you, and it’s a shame more people don’t learn to do it.For years now, that’s been a hugely popular stance.

(Kemeny died in 1992.) “We needed a language that could be ‘taught’ to virtually all students (and faculty) without their having to take a course.” Their brainchild quickly became the standard way that people everywhere learned to program computers, and remained so for many years.Born in Budapest in 1926 and Jewish, Kemeny came to the United States in 1940 along with the rest of his family to flee the Nazis.He attended Princeton, where he took a year off to contribute to the Manhattan Project and was inspired by a lecture about computers by the pioneering mathematician and physicist John von Neumann.Knowing how to program a computer is good for you, and it’s a shame more people don’t learn to do it.For years now, that’s been a hugely popular stance.It’s led to educational initiatives as effortless sounding as the Hour of Code (offered by Code.org) and as obviously ambitious as Code Year (spearheaded by Codecademy). Last December, he issued a You Tube video in which he urged young people to take up programming, declaring that “learning these skills isn’t just important for your future, it’s important for our country’s future.” I find the “everybody should learn to code” movement laudable.