Back to BASIC: Computing’s Future Was Born at Dartmouth

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In 1964, mathematics professor and future Dartmouth president John Kemeny and math professor Tom Kurtz, along with a handful of Dartmouth undergraduates, revolutionized computing with the introduction of time-sharing and the BASIC programming language, opening the door to computing for all Dartmouth students and faculty, and soon after, for people across the nation and the world.

John Kemeny and students

Math professor and future Dartmouth president John Kemeny teaches BASIC programming to students in the Kiewit Computation Center. (Photo courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library

Dartmouth is celebrating the anniversary of their achievement with a BASIC at 50 public event on Wednesday, April 30, recognizing the enduring impact of BASIC, showcasing innovation in computing at Dartmouth today, and imagining what the next 50 years will hold.

“We’re celebrating the remarkable impact that BASIC had on the history of computing with the premiere of a new film about the birth of BASIC, and we’re thrilled to have Tom Kurtz himself, John Kemeny’s daughter Jenny Kemeny, and some of the students who were involved join in a discussion afterwards,” says Professor Thomas Cormen, chair of the Department of Computer Science and a member of the BASIC event committee.

“We will also host an interactive session highlighting some of the innovative work of Dartmouth students that is going on today, and we will take a glimpse of the next 50 years of computing with a panel of futurists,” Cormen says.

Mathematics Professor Dan Rockmore, the William H. Neukom 1964 Distinguished Professor of Computational Science, produced the BASIC documentary with filmmaker Bob Drake.

“The success of BASIC and time-sharing on the Dartmouth campus is a landmark in both the history of computing and the history of education,” says Rockmore. “Our movie aims to illustrate this and give a sense of the creative spirit that Kemeny, Kurtz, and their student collaborators brought to this project.”

(view the slideshow below, or on Dartmouth’s Flickr channel)

Rockmore will moderate the question-and-answer period following the movie with panelists Kurtz, Jenny Kemeny, and Dartmouth alumni who were involved in the early days of time-sharing and BASIC.

The final session of the event will turn toward imagining the next 50 years of computing. Panelists Michael T. Jones, chief technologist at Google; Brian D. Johnson, a futurist at Intel; and Daniela Rus, director of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will hold a free-form discussion followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience.

The day’s events are free and open to the public. For more information and more details as they develop, visit the BASIC at 50 website.

Learn more about the history of BASIC in the video below.