One of the most popular computer programming languages ever just turned 50, but almost no one uses it anymore. BASIC, short for Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, may have gotten its start in 1964 at Dartmouth College as a math project. But it ended up defining home computer ownership for an entire generation.
As a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1980s, getting my first real computer—an Atari 800—was a huge turning point. Radio Shack TRS-80, Apple II, IBM PC, and Commodore 64 owners all experienced a variation of the same thing. As a certifiable Atari nut, I subscribed to the then-new Antic magazine; the contents of all issues can be found at www.atarimagazines.com. Each monthly issue had plenty of BASIC programs to type in. I killed a lot of evenings and Sundays in elementary school doing just that.
The results were laughable by today’s standards. I distinctly remember my dad and I spending one Sunday afternoon typing in this flag program in BASIC; it was one of the first ones we did, when we first got the computer. It seemed really long at the time (though later I would type in programs ten times its size, and spend several days on them). When we finished, it naturally didn’t work at first; we had made at least one mistake somewhere, so we spent even more time figuring that out.
After all that, when we finally got it right, we typed RUN, and—ta da!—it displayed a blocky, pixelated American flag on the screen, complete with white dots for stars. And that was it. “This is what we get for all that? You’ve got to be joking,” my father said. After that, I was the one who typed in all the programs. I didn’t mind.
CODING FOR FUN AND (NO) PROFIT
From then on, it was off to the races. I typed in code for more graphics demos, puzzle games, text adventures, disk utilities, printing projects—you name it, and there were probably a bunch of nearuseless-but-still-fun programs I could type in or write myself. Eventually, I started running a BBS on the Atari 800. Being in Brooklyn was key for that, because I ended up making some close friends who all happened to be in the New York City area.
At the time, schools began adding computer labs; my elementary school had a lab full of Commodore PET machines, and we were issued great big yellow binders full of exercises and programming examples to type in over the course of the semester. We learned about avoiding spaghetti code (too many GOTO statements), how to design simple and clear user interfaces, and how to program rudimentary graphics and sound on what were even then considered obsolete computers.
To be fair, BASIC had something of a less-thanstellar reputation among true power users at the time. Because it’s an interpreted language, there was a huge amount of memory and CPU overhead to get it to work. Before you could run programs, you had to run BASIC first, and then run your code on top of it. Games programmed in BASIC tended to be sluggish and unresponsive compared with those written in assembly, which was much tougher to learn but gave you more direct access to the “metal,” or hardware.
“There’s still a need for new software—but not for the kinds of things you’d program on your own.”
“C” ISN’T THE SAME
Time magazine’s Harry McCracken recently wrote a stellar overview of how BASIC impacted being a computer user in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I’m definitely on his side; I believe something is lost today in that more people don’t know how to program.
Granted, it’s different now; the computer was a completely novel thing back in the early 1980s, and it was great to learn to program it and watch it do things. If you needed a mortgage calculator, or (ahem) a Dungeons & Dragons character generator, you’d look up the necessary BASIC commands in whatever book you had, and write it yourself. Game programmers would make all their own art and sound effects, and because resolution was so low, you could even get away with it.
Now, with a single tap, you can download any of more than a million apps on your phone, all of which do much more than that out of the box, and look and sound amazing in comparison, with professional art and sound design. If you want to write something yourself, it’s much tougher now, given the complexity of each OS, and less immediately gratifying.
There’s still a need for new software—but not for the kinds of things you’d program on your own, like that mortgage calculator or character generator. If you need a rudimentary app that does X, you can probably find a zillion of them on the Web with a Google search. Many will even run in your browser, so you don’t have to install anything. And although BASIC itself still exists in newer forms like Visual Basic and QBasic, they’re footnotes rather than the main story, at least with regard to owning a computer.
I went on to get a computer science degree, but I never really enjoyed C programming in the same way I did BASIC and didn’t make a career of it. I’m heartened that so many people do, and I’m in awe of their skills.
But that’s the thing: Even though I wasn’t a natural-born coder like the John Carmacks of the world, BASIC meant that I could still learn to program, and learn everything about how computers work.
“BASIC programming looks pretty tame today. But I can’t imagine my childhood without it.”
In a world of quad-core phones and highdefinition game consoles, BASIC programming looks pretty tame today. But I can’t imagine my childhood without it, and it’s a bit sad to me that there isn’t a modern-day equivalent of an easy-to-learn programming language for everyone.