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Dartmouth in the (Good) News

Professor of Computational Science Dan Rockmore has a fine column in the Wall Street Journal today about the development of BASIC:

Fifty years ago, at 4 a.m. on May 1, 1964, in the basement of College Hall at Dartmouth College, the world of computing changed forever. Professor John Kemeny, then the chairman of the mathematics department at Dartmouth and later its president, and Mike Busch, a Dartmouth sophomore, typed “RUN” on a pair of computer terminals to execute two programs on a single industrial-sized General Electric “mainframe” computer. The programs were written in Basic (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), a fledgling computer language designed for the everyman, by Prof. Kemeny, Professor Tom Kurtz and a team of eager students.

Back then, using a computer was almost exclusively the privilege of a select minority of scientists and engineers who were conversant in the early languages of assembly code and Fortran. Prof. Kemeny, who had been a programmer on the Manhattan Project for Richard Feynman and an assistant to Albert Einstein, and Prof. Kurtz, a former student of the computing pioneer John Tukey, saw great potential in computers for advancing teaching and research, but they realized that this would require a whole new level of accessibility.

Basic was the first programming language designed specifically for nonengineers and nonmathematicians. It was easy to learn (“LET X = 5,” “IF X = 5 THEN Z = 10,” “PRINT X”), and at the same time, mainframe computers were starting to use timesharing—a system that let them more quickly handle multiple requests from terminals (a novel form of which was created by a team of Dartmouth undergraduates). As a result, an environment of interactive and available computing took over the campus. The pieces were in place for a global transformation as wide-ranging as the Industrial Revolution….

Note the integral participation of students in the development of both BASIC and the Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS).

I sure wish good news like this about the College didn’t have to be fifty years old. Can you think of anything recently that comes close to the above? If not, can you think of anything recently that you might want to tell your friends about?

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