Co-inventor of computer code gets back to BASIC

As John Kemeny recounts the events of 20 years ago, BASIC (Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instructional Code) sprang from a desire to wrest programming from the experts by creating a simple, universal language. ``It was designed to come up with a language that beginners could learn very easily, and yet would have in it whatever they needed'' in order to program, the computer scientist says.

With what now could seem a touch of high-tech naivet'e, Dr. Kemeny, Dartmouth colleague Thomas Kurtz, and Dartmouth itself (the copyright holder) let the invention enter the public domain immediately, with the hope that it would unlock the mysteries of the computer for a vastly larger universe of users. BASIC certainly did.

But BASIC's originators failed to foresee the advent of the ``micro,'' or small, stand-alone desktop computer. When micros of all brands started coursing into the market, manufacturers searched for a language to team with their products. BASIC was the popular choice.

But instead of adopting Dartmouth's BASIC I, nearly every manufacturer (including IBM, Digital Equipment, Hewlett-Packard, and Tandy) made a customized version. This created not standardization, but the opposite.

After stepping down as president of Dartmouth in 1981 and returning full time to computer science, Kemeny reassessed the language he and Kurtz had introduced: ``I was horrified as to what had happened to it.''

Kemeny and Kurtz began thinking in terms of carrying through what they had begun two decades earlier -- producing a standardized, thoroughly updated version of BASIC that could be used on a variety of machines.

And this time, explains Kemeny, they were careful to avoid their earlier mistakes. They formed a company -- True BASIC Inc., -- with the marketing and promotional resources to ensure the sanctity of the product.

Kemeny's hope is that True BASIC will make the computer even more useful to educators by allowing them to share instructional programs with colleagues who may be using a different kind of hardware -- the impulse that led to BASIC in the first place. -- 30 --

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