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Dartmouth Computing Wasn’t Basic

Once upon a time Dartmouth led the nation in academic computing. Other schools logged into the Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS), and during freshman fall we were all required to play three hours of Space War. You’d log in using in a rotary dial telephone and a 300 baud acoustic coupler, enter your ID and password on a teletype terminal, go to the game, and lo and behold, a Klingon vessel was trying to destroy you. You’d shoot a photon torpedo at it and change your quandrant, and a minute or so later (depending on how many users were on the system) the terminal’s printer would clatter into action to let you know that you’d missed, the Klingon had moved, and it had also fired a phaser at you. The game was on. And so was your familiarity with computers.

The architect of all this progress was our President, Math Professor and Los Alamos veteran John Kemeny, whose license plate was a beloved feature on campus. He, Professor Tom Kurtz, and a group of Dartmouth students had written BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), the first accessible language of the modern computer age. BASIC grew fast, and a Harvard kid named Gates even took the program and adapted it to the Altair 800, one of the first personal computers. It was his little company’s first product.

Kemeny Basic Comp.jpg

BASIC’s 50th anniversary is fast approaching, and the celebrations are on. The College is putting on a pretty good show. See the details here. For geeks, Code Project has a deeper description of BASIC’s impact.


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