As BASIC celebrates 50 years, a revival is needed

On the 1st May 1964 BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) programming language was initiated when at 4 a.m. Professor John G. Kemeny and student programmer Thomas E. Kurtz (who later became a professor) simultaneously typed RUN on neighbouring terminals in the basement hall of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. When they got back the correct answers to their programs, BASIC was officially born. This innovation implemented the concept of time-sharing on computer systems and set in motion a chain of events which would lead to computers becoming available to all.

At the time, computers were generally used by science and mathematics students, and required custom written software. Data and programs were often stored on punch-cards and paper tape [Footnote 1], with magnetic tape being introduced in 1951. During the 1970s there was rapid growth in different flavours of BASIC, additional functions were added with extra structuring keywords and advanced floating-point operation features.

With the introduction of 8-bit home computing, from the ZX-81, Commodore VIC-20, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, BBC Micro & Acorn Electron, Amstrad CPC 464 and other models and makes of the 1980s, versions of BASIC became widespread and were often integrated into the computer’s firmware (ROM chip) along with an interpreter and operating system commands. Cassette tapes were used for data storage and retrieval initially and later floppy disks.

ZX Spectrum BASIC example

ZX Spectrum BASIC example

Upon powering on a home micro an interpreter prompt would be displayed, this enable writing BASIC programs or executing commands built into that hardware platform’s operating system. For example, to load a word processor package (e.g., Tasword) one would type LOAD “” and press Enter. Then play the tape. Friends with attached Interface 1 + Microdrives or floppy disks with the later ZX Spectrum +3 (Amstrad) would be able to load data at a much faster rate than cassette tape.

With the growth of 8-bit home computing, complete source code for computer games and other programs were published in magazines and books. In the UK the BBC embarked upon a Computer Literacy Project using BBC BASIC. Over the years BASIC has continued to develop, notably with Microsoft’s Visual Basic. Some teaching guides such as the AQA A/AS Level Computing books still provide examples in Microsoft Visual Basic, however this version of BASIC is closer in structure to Python or Pascal rather than 8-bit computer BASIC. 

ZX Spectrum Keyboard

ZX Spectrum Keyboard

Higher level languages such as Pascal and Python can be confusing to someone who has never seen program code before and absolute beginners could also start with Scratch. While BASIC was not liked by all programmers, I believe that it is still an excellent introductory path in learning how to program. Once one has got to grips with programming in a BASIC language, whether one is using ZX Spectrum, BBC, True or any other flavour of BASIC, the next step would be to move onto Pascal, Python or Microsoft Visual Basic.

There are many Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) available to write programs in, such as Microsoft Visual Studio on Windows, Xcode on Mac OS, or on Linux/BSD (and Windows & Mac) Code::Blocks and Qt Creator.

However if one wants to go retro and get to grips with coding, a ZX Spectrum or BBC Micro emulator could be loaded onto Windows, Mac or Linux/BSD based OS computer. Excellent resources to start with are World Of Spectrum and BBC BASIC. Alternative hardware platforms to desktop & laptop computers are available for learning how to program, notable the Raspberry Pi.

Programming will open a whole world of fun, thinking logically and aid in the learning of algorithms. Problem solving skills will be acquired along the way, and with the growth of coding clubs, opportunities are available to learn in a group.

While the days of the 8-bit home computer hardware with built-in BASIC interpreter have been superseded by more advanced processor technology, and some may believe that technology has progressed beyond BASIC programming,

the age of Basic programming has gone

this need not be the case. With 8-bit emulators (ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro, et al.) available to run on Windows, Mac OS, Linux/BSD operating systems, and RISC OS available for the Raspberry Pi, BASIC programming is available for all to start learning.

Footnotes.

[Footnote 1] 1. Magnetic drums were widely used during the 1950s-1960s for computer memory, which was superseded by magnetic-core memory. Later followed transistor memory, and with the invention of semiconductor circuits the first RAM chips were used during the late 1960s, becoming commercially available in October 1970 with the Intel 1103.

Resources.

BBC BASIC
World of Spectrum
Visual Basic
Code Club
Coding Club
Computing for teachers
Raspberry Pi

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