Who Invented the Computer? John G. Kemeny and BASIC

Who Invented the Computer? This is the twenty-second installment in our ongoing series.


John G. Kemeney opened up computer programming to the masses.

As the 1960s rolled around computers became ever more common in government, industry and especially in academia. Unfortunately, while computing power was constantly increasing, operating efficiency was lagging.


Because computers could perform only one task at a time, one would have to have their punch cards fed into the computer and wait around for a few hours to receive the output. Further slowing down the process, in order to instruct a computer to do something, one had to first write a software program — the exclusive domain of mathematicians and computer scientists.


Exclusive, that is, until John George Kemeny came along.


Born in Budapest, Hungary into a Jewish family, Kemeny (1926-1992) was a multi-talented genius. At age 14, to escape rising anti-Jewish sentiment, he and his family emigrated to the United States. The family landed in New York City, where young Kemeny enrolled at George Washington High School. He proved to be diligent student, and although Kemeny spoke no English, he graduated three years later as class valedictorian.


The next decade was extremely busy for Kemeny. He enrolled at Princeton to study mathematics and philosophy, worked as a graduate assistant for Albert Einstein, took a year off to work on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, completed a hitch in the Army, finished his PhD, became a full professor at Princeton, and in 1963 was hired away to chair the mathematics department at Dartmouth College in the small town of Hanover, N.H.


What if everyone could use computers?


John G. Kemeney opened up computer programming to the masses.

The guiding principle of Kemeny's management and teaching at Dartmouth was simplicity. He believed that any subject could be taught in such a clear manner that every student could master it by applying themselves.


He was also a fan of "electronic brains" (computers), believing that they would eventually be a part of everyday life. His goal was that every student would "have access to a computer, and any faculty member should be able to use a computer in the classroom whenever appropriate."


Because it was impossible to provide every student and faculty member with a computer of their own, fellow faculty member Tom Kurtz suggested the school utilize a concept pioneered at MIT: time-sharing.


Time-sharing enabled numerous individuals to simultaneously use a computer through the division of the CPU's processing by power switching it between different programs with each program running for a tenth of a second. The computer ran slower than normal, but still fast enough that users wouldn't notice. With some minor tweaks, this system became known as the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System (DTSS).


With DTSS in place, the next step was to select a language. The department experimented with popular languages like FORTRAN and ALGOL, but these both proved too complex to be learned quickly without having to take a course.


Kemeny wanted a language that didn't require complex memorization and could be learned in a few hours. So Kemeny, in collaboration with Dartmouth college colleague Thomas Kurtz — a fellow champion of making computers and computing widely accessible — wrote one himself and named it BASIC for "Beginners' All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code."


BASIC was essentially a compiler that converted a program as it was written into machine code. With the assistance of Kurtz, and a dozen undergraduate students — who were new to computers — Kemeny was eventually able to run BASIC on the DTSS.


A computer programming language for all


By June of 1964, BASIC and the DTSS was available to Dartmouth students on 11 teletype machines in the school's new computer building. Students could now run simple programs within seconds and debug them as needed.


The first version of BASIC had 15 commands with easy-to-understand names and syntax that users could learn in 2-to-3 hours. The commands were:


HELLO: Log in to the program

BYE: Log off

LIST: Display the current program

SAVE: Save the current program in permanent storage

UNSAVE: Remove the current program from permanent storage

CATALOG: Display names of programs in permanent storage

SCRATCH: Erase the current program without clearing its name

RENAME: Change name of current program

NEW: Name and begin writing a program

OLD: Retrieve a program from permanent storage

RUN: Execute the current programs

STOP: Interrupt the currently running program

PRINT: Print text and numbers to the teletype

IF and THEN: Enabled the program to determine whether a statement was true

LIST: Displays the source code of the program


BASIC was an immediate success, and while the program was originally intended for beginning math classes, Kemeny wanted all school courses to utilize computers. By 1965, students were using BASIC to complete assignments in more than 100 courses, including science, economics, education and psychology, languages, and sociology.


By 1967, 40 percent of faculty members were utilizing DTSS and BASIC and more than 2,000 Dartmouth students — 80 percent of the three incoming freshman classes since BASIC's invention — had learned to write and debug their own computer programs.


Dartmouth at the time was an all-male liberal arts school, and almost overnight students began making simple games like tic-tac-toe and QUBIC. The most popular game was written by Kemeny, who loved football. The "Dartmouth Championship Football" game enabled players to select basic pass and run plays and even included a dog that randomly ran onto the field.


Talkin' 'bout a revolution


BASIC was now available to anyone who wanted to learn it. Kemeny convinced the local high school to install a teletype machine for their students to program in BASIC. Soon, colleges and universities throughout New England were buying time on the DTSS to write programs in BASIC. With thousands more users, the phone company had to add new trunk lines into the town of Hanover.


From there, BASIC expanded into private industry with versions being written for the various computer manufacturers, including IBM and Hewlett-Packard. In 1975, two enterprising computer buffs, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, wrote a commercial program, Altair BASIC, and sold it to hobbyists for $150 per copy. Altair BASIC was Microsoft's first consumer product. Unfortunately, the price was so high that it led to the first widespread case of software piracy as users obtained and ran unauthorized copies.


(The rampant piracy ultimately led directly to Gates' angry Open Letter to Hobbyists.)


John G. Kemeney opened up computer programming to the masses.

Not everyone was happy with BASIC and how it opened computer programming to the masses. Its most strident opponent was the influential computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra who claimed in a 1975 essay that it was impossible to teach good programming to students who had been exposed to BASIC, stating, "As potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration."


In spite of Dijkstra's tirade against BASIC, countless individuals have used the program as a springboard to successful careers in programming.


Kemeny is generally believed to have paid little heed to criticisms of his creation. He proudly drove his 1967 Thunderbird around campus with a vanity license plate that read "BASIC."


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Calvin Harper

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.