As I’ve mentioned on previous occasions, when I graduated from high school and started university in the summer of 1975, the only computer in the engineering department building itself was an analog beast that filled the room.

This monstrous machine was formed from lots of small modules, each of which provided a single analog function, like being able to compare, add, subtract, multiply, and integrate analog signals. We specified coefficients using rotary switches and potentiometers, and we connected the various functions together using cables with jack plugs on each end (see also The Analog Thing (THAT)).

The university did own a digital computer, but this was housed in its own building on the other side of the town center. One of the first programming languages I learned was FORTRAN, which was originally developed by IBM in the 1950s for scientific and engineering applications.

We captured our programs on “decks” of punched cards. Once you had created a deck, you carried it to the computer building and handed it through a window to someone on the other side who said, “Come back next week.” Almost invariably, when you returned in the hope of receiving a printout showing the results from your code, you were instead presented with your original deck of cards attached to a scrap of paper bearing a note saying something like, “Missing comma on Line 1.”

Arrgggghhh (and I mean that most sincerely). So, you would trudge back to the engineering building, create a new card for Line 1 including the wayward comma, and crawl back to the computer building, only to be invited to, “Come back next week.”

This style of programming has been compared to “playing chess by mail” (and I don’t mean email—we’re talking about snail mail with days or weeks between moves).

Having said all this, we did have Teletype machines in the engineering department that were connected by telephone lines to the main computer. We could use these to enter and run programs in the BASIC programming language.

We could also run existing programs that had been created in BASIC. One of these was the classic Animal Game in which the computer asks you a series of Yes/No questions to try to guess which animal you are thinking of.

When this game is run for the first time, it knows only a single animal, say an Elephant, so its first guess with its first player will be “Is the animal you are thinking of an Elephant?”

The player gets to pick between “Yes” and “No” options. If, by some quirk of fate, the player had been thinking of an Elephant, they would select “Yes,” and the game would be over. However, if they had been thinking of a Mouse, for example, then they would select “No.” In this case, the computer would ask them to type in the name of their animal, and they’d enter “Mouse.” Then it would ask them to enter a question that could be used to differentiate between a Mouse and an Elephant, and the player might enter something like, “Is it small?” Finally, the computer would ask the player, “What is the answer in the case of a Mouse?” and—in this case—the player would select “Yes.” The computer would now add this new animal to its collection for use with the next player.

I know all this sounds pathetically simple now, but it was mind-blowing at the time (is there anyone out there who would care to back me up on this in the comments below?).

BASIC, which stands for “Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code,” was originally developed at Dartmouth College in the early 1960s. Many professional programmers tend to disparage this language, but it was ideally suited to its purpose, which was to enable students in non-scientific fields to use computers. At the same time, BASIC’s creators also developed the Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS), which allowed multiple users to edit and run BASIC programs simultaneously on remote terminals.

The use of BASIC proliferated throughout universities in the 1960s and exploded with the advent of microcomputers in the mid-1970s.

The reason I’m waffling on about this here is that my chum, Jay Dowling, recently shared a link to this video that documents “The Birth of BASIC,” including interviews with many of the people who were part of its development when they were students.

As you’ll see, the two instigators of this project were John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz. To be honest, I’d never heard of Kemeny prior to watching this video, but I now regard him as being one of my heroes. One of the commenters to the video said, “That short story while rolling the end credits is moving enough to make a grown man cry.” I agree because I had a little tear in my own eye after watching this little rascal.

What say you? Do you have any BASIC-related tales you’d care to share with the rest of us?