Tuesday, 16 December 2008

John G. Kemeny: BASIC and DTSS: Everyone a Programmer

Kemeny and Kurtz realized that a new computer language was needed that could be easily learned and accessible to typical college students. Kemeny noted, "We at Dartmouth envisaged the possibility of millions of people writing their own computer programs." (Man and the Computer, p. 30) They designed their language with plain English and high school algebra like commands and so that the lay user could learn a very few commands and then be able to write interesting programs. Kemeny started to work on a draft version in September, 1963. The result was BASIC, Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. The first BASIC program ran on May 1, 1964 at 4:00 am. Kemeny and Kurtz made an effort to get as many students as possible using BASIC and they were available to hear about problems and bugs and to come up with bug fixes. Kemeny and Kurtz wanted BASIC to be in the public domain. Dartmouth copyrighted BASIC but made it available without charge.


Kemeny had a very broad vision of the role computers would play in society. He foresaw a man-machine symbiosis that would help both to evolve rapidly. In the early 1970's he predicted that within 20 years there would be a national computer network with erminals in millions of homes, so every home would be a mini university. He also predicted there would be a National Automated Reference Library, a national ersonalized computer delivered news service, and, especially, greatly enhanced education via time sharing and simple programming languages. Kemeny worked hard to implement his visions and felt by the late 1980's great disappointment in the slow progress. He died just as the great computer networking structures that have developed in some large measure because of his pioneering work and vision have begun to fulfill more of his expectations but also just as a fight is being waged by those who want to commercialize theses networking
structures and those who want to keep them in the public domain.

Full text here.

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