History of BASIC programming Language

BASIC (standing for Beginner’s All Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) is a system developed at Dartmouth College in 1964 under the directory of J. Kemeny and T. Kurtz. It was implemented for the G.E.225. It was meant to be a very simple language to learn and also one that would be easy to translate. Furthermore, the designers wished it to be a stepping-stone for students to learn on of the more powerful languages such as FORTRAN or ALGOL.


BASIC was born in 1964 at Dartmouth College in the USA to aid the teaching of computer programming at a time when the main methods of input/output were via punched card and/or paper tape. And computers were big! I learnt BASIC on a burroughs mainframe with 5 terminals, 2 or 3 mag tape drives and _64K_ RAM! It filled a small room! Ferrite core memory!

Variable names of one character. No ELSE statement. The language was originally only available in interpreted versions, which were mostly running on mainframes and minis but with the advent of the personal computer in the mid-seventies many different versions began to appear, most holding to the Dartmouth spec, with extensions. Some didn’t. A dialect running under CP/M on a North Star Horizon (1980) used ! as a statement seperator, and required you to define strings as arrays (bit like ‘C’).

There was an ANSI standard published (ANSI X3JZ/76-01) as a recommendation for ‘minimal BASIC’, and The National Computing Centre (UK) published ‘Specification for Standard Basic’ by Bull, Freeman and Garland. Don’t know the dates, but pre ’80… During the late seventies and mid/late eighties there were _hundreds_ of personal computers designed, built and sold, and nearly all came with some dialect of BASIC on ROM. Trouble was, they were all different. Most of these machines sunk without trace, but some live on in our memories…

writes Douggie Green


Bill Gates and Paul Allen had something different in mind. In the 1970’s when M.I.T.S.’s Altair personal computer was being conceived Allen convinced Gates to help him develop a Basic Language for it. When M.I.T.S. answered with interest, The future of BASIC and the PC began. Gates was attending Harvard at the time and Allen was a Honeywell employee. Allen and Gates licensed their BASIC to M.I.T.S. for the Altair. This version took a total of 4K memory including the code and data used for a source code.

Gates and Allen then ported Basic to other various platforms and moved back to their hometown of Seattle where they had attended grade school together. It was at this time that the Microsoft Corporation began it’s reign in the PC world. By the late 70’s, BASIC had been ported to platforms such as the Apple, Commodore and Atari computers and now it was time for Bill Gates’s DOS which came with a Basic interpreter. The IBM-DOS version of this interpreter became known as BASICA, and at the time IBM was in major competition with clones so it was setup to require the BIOS distributed with IBM computers. The version distributed with MS-DOS was GW-BASIC and ran on any machine that could run DOS. There were no differences between BASIC-A and GW-BASIC which seems to make IBM’s idea useless.

Microsoft realized just how popular their BASIC interpreter was and decided to distribute a compiler so users could code programs that ran without an interpreter. QuickBasic was the solution Microsoft came up with. It was distributed on through the years until version 4.5. At this time Microsoft decided to release a product with more kick and started distributing PDS BASIC (Professional Development System) and ended it with version 7.1 (Also called QuickBasic Extended), PDS was a short lived idea and was not followed through to its true capabilities. [Though it was an improvement over QB4.5]. Microsoft got hooked on GUI’s and started Visual Basic both a DOS and WIN version. The DOS version was ended at 1.0 with a professional update, Differences between VB for DOS and QB are not as much as one might think, in fact VB still compiles QB4.5 code and the professional edition will compile PDS7.1 Code. One last thing: PDS will compile to true OS/2 Code, VB-DOS Pro/std and QB4.5 will not.

Somewhere in the midst of all this a gentleman named Robert S. Zale had realized more of the Potential Basic was capable of and designed his own Compiler. Borland Inc. snatched this up and distributed it as TurboBasic, but Mr. Zale was soon to distribute his product on his own. It is now called PowerBasic and is up to version 3.1. PowerBasic is one of the more Powerful Compilers on the market and adds the idea of unsigned Variables along with Inline Assembly Language Code and several other nice additions to the Basic language. PB Inc. has also announced they will distribute an OS/2 version of PB and possibly a windows version, but claim they won’t abandon their DOS users.


Overkill. That’s what Thomas Kurtz thinks of today’s software. “The public has been sold the most complicated word processing systems imaginable, when all they want to do is to write a letter.” Aching for simplicity in a computer programming language, Kurtz and John Kemeny codeveloped BASIC in 1964. It has its detractors, but BASIC is still bundled on virtually every microcomputer sold. They never copyrighted it, so dozens of variations appeared. This horrified the Drs. K, who dubbed the dialects “Street BASIC.” In the 1980s, they formed a company to develop True BASIC, a lean version that meets ANSI and ISO standards. Kurtz is currently a professor emeritus at Dartmouth. Kemeny, once president of Dartmouth, died in 1992.

— Thomas Kurtz era 1960’s


Some other facts:

  • The first Basic considered to be a full language implemented on a microprocessor was Li Chen Wang’s “Tiny Basic”, which appeared in Dr. Dobbs.
  • Basic was the first product sold by Microsoft corporation, and also the first major case of software piracy – It was copied widely even before Microsoft made it available (Bill Gates lost track of a copy on paper tape during a computer show).
  • The name “BASIC” may have come directly or indirectly from the science of human languages. Before the second world war, C. K. Ogden wrote a series called “Basic English”. This was a list of 850 English words which would serve to describe any other word in English (perhaps by using more than one).

These books are written by the inventors of the Basic language:


The BASIC language is described in these standards:

  • ANSI Standard for Minimal BASIC (X3.60-1978)
  • ANSI Standard for Full BASIC (X3.113-1987)
  • ISO Standard for Minimal BASIC (ISO 6373:1984 Data processing - Programming languages - Minimal BASIC)
  • ISO Standard for Full BASIC (ISO/IEC 10279:1991 Information technology - Programming languages - Full BASIC)


2 thoughts on “History of BASIC programming Language

  1. Pingback: This is a Tough One…Programming and Analysis or Journalism? « Changing With the Times

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