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“The Birth of BASIC”

Professor Tom Kurtz introduces a very fine film:

Why is what we did at Dartmouth fifty years ago so great? Well… let me think about it a second. Computing was coming into its own, but in all of the other projects that were undertaken by industry and by universities, the target was research and development computing ideas and so forth, whereas here at Dartmouth we had the crazy idea that our students, our undergraduate students, who were not going to be technically employed later on — social science and humanities students — should learn how to use the computer. A completely nutty idea…

The whole project was governed by the idea of introducing computing to everybody on the Dartmouth campus, or nearly everybody…

Bill Zani Tuck ‘64 observes:

In the fall of ‘64, we were invited to make a presentation at AFIPS [American Federation of Information Processing Societies]. It was a big deal of computer people in San Francisco. There was a room of, maybe, 2,000 people in the room. We hooked up the acoustic coupler with the handset, and we linked the Model 33 teletype to Hanover.

We got the dial tone, and all of this was videotaped on the screen for the audience. And we were entering programs in it, and lo and behold, out comes the answers and shown on the screen. And everybody went bananas on this simple, basic language being compiled and run in San Francisco over ordinary telephone lines in the computers in College Hall [now Collis] in Hanover.

And we were bombarded with questions of what it was. That’s the first time I really got to see the impact of what the Dartmouth Time Sharing had.

Kurtz concludes:

The second thing that was interesting about it was that it was all done by Dartmouth undergraduate students. Nowhere else do I know of in the history of computing has something like this been done.

Sounds a like a great bunch of teachers at a great school, don’t you think? In fact, the film is a remedial education unto itself about the real nature of the old Dartmouth; it is of particular usefulness to people burdened with prejudices about the nature of the College prior to their own arrival on campus.

Addendum: The film was made by Professor Dan Rockmore, the College’s Director of Media Production Mike Murray and filmmaker Bob Drake. It premiered at the College’s “BASIC@50” event on May 1.


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