Happy Birthday, BASIC

Well, since lots of other nerds are wishing BASIC a happy 50th birthday, let me chime in as well.

It was the summer of 1973. My mother, a high-school math teacher, had signed up for summer school as part of her work on obtaining a Master's degree. She was taking "Boolean Algebra" and "Introduction to Programming with BASIC" at Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia. But she ended up in the hospital with kidney stones and was unable to attend the classes she had already paid for.

I was the proud owner of a driver's license. Yes, you got your license at 16 in Georgia, learner's permit at 15 at that time and I remember to this day my first drive alone, the day after my birthday, in our red Duster with the windows rolled down and Rod Stewart's  "Maggie May" blasting out the radio.

Since I had no plans other than reading a large pile of Gothic novels over the summer, I offered to take the courses as a proxy, and my mother readily agreed. I drove to the university in the mornings and took notes on the lectures, copying down the hieroglyphics on the board. I then drove to the hospital (luckily, she was at the Emory University Hospital) and brought her the notes and the exercises. She solved the programming ones first, writing out what I was to program for her.

I drove back to campus and went down to the computer cellar. We were able to use the keypunch machines there all afternoon. My math teacher, Mr. Barber, was also taking the course. He showed me how to use the punch, and how to (literally!) bootstrap the machine with the BASIC interpreter before feeding my own little punch tape into the machine. A teletype would then rattle away and print out something. I would tear it off, and then drive back to the hospital to show my mom the results, picking up the Boolean Algebra exercises to hand in at the end of the day.

WOW! I could make the machine go! My mom didn't want me playing around (I might break something), I was only allowed to type in her programs for her. So when we moved to California shortly after the school year started and Crawford High School had a course in computing, I signed right up! Mr. Juell, our teacher, would take punched cards with FORTRAN programs to a computer center twice a week and pick up the results of the last batch. Boy, you sure learned to check your syntax that way!

We also had a teletype, hooked up via modem to some computer. I can still whistle the connection melody. Here we programmed in BASIC, and oh my, you got immediate response from the computer! What fun we had, a small group of nerds, playing with these toys that also included a programmable calculator that had to have commands punched in octal on cards. I wish I still had copies of the programs we wrote that would be so funny to see how badly we programmed back then.

I went on to study computing, learning all sorts of other programming languages and hearing about the GOTO being considered harmful. I never had a home computer until I bought a Computer Schneider system for writing my dissertation. It had BASIC on it, but I didn't have time for games.

As a proper theoretical computer scientist I, of course, should not admit to ever having used the language. But the immediacy of the results we got as teenagers fueled my enthusiasm for learning more about computers. So many thanks to BASIC for getting me started on my career -- and happy birthday!

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