Bruce Lawson's personal site

Happy Birthday, BASIC

The programming language, BASIC, turned 50 years old yesterday. I started using it 33 years ago, when my physics teacher persuaded our school to buy an Ohio Scientific Challanger 2 microcomputer, with Microsoft BASIC as its 8K ROM operating system and chunky 8K of RAM, then set up a computer club. I went along after school, because my mate Matt’s older brother was in computers and he was cool. (He had a job and owned all the punk LPs we listened to at lunchtime.)

Surprising everyone (including myself), I found that programming simply came naturally to me. I was soon coding games that my friends wanted to play.

It taught me several important concepts – primarily, how to break problems into logical flows, and how to debug when regaled with “Syntax error in line 40” (you may also enjoy my Old programmer war story tale of epic debugging.)

It taught me about abstraction; I soon learned 6502 assembler and disassembled the ROM to see how the computer interpreted the stuff I typed in. (The joys of finding the message “Microsoft BASIC written by Richard W Weiland” hidden in the memory!)

It taught me about cross-platform; later, I borrowed a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, learned Z80 assembler and realised that although the code I entered was the same as the code I’d written for the Challenger 2 (with some minor syntactical variations), what happened under the hood was wildly different.

BASIC changed the world for me, and on cheap widely-accessible machines like the Sinclair ZX series and the BBC micros, it changed the whole world.

What I love about BASIC is that it was designed for simplicity. As wikipedia writes, “It was intended specifically for less technical users who did not have or want the mathematical background previously expected.” It also prefigured the WWW: “The designers of the language decided to make the compiler available free of charge so that the language would become widespread.”

Even the name “Basic” was a statement of intent; no wonder “real” computer professionals sneered at the language. “Goto considered harmful”, they said. I understood that to mean “working class 14 year olds who do literature and humanities not welcome here.”

Today there are still those who try to make programmers a special priesthood. They can kiss my algorithms.

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