Harry McCracken

A Short History of BASIC, as Told in Animated GIFs

May 01, 2014

On Tuesday, we published my piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of BASIC, the programming language -- created by John Kemeny and Tom Kurtz at Dartmouth College -- that played an enormous role in creating the whole concept of personal computing. Today is the actual anniversary, commemorating the day when BASIC programs first successfully ran on a GE computer system at Dartmouth College.

One of the reasons I had fun working on the article was that it provided an excuse to use a bunch of versions of BASIC -- both ones I once loved, such as TRS-80 Level II, and some I'd spent little or no time in, like the one for the Commodore 64.

I did so using a bevy of emulators on my MacBook Air. And I used a neat program called Camtasia and some post-processing in Photoshop to create animated GIFs capturing what I saw as I loaded some significant BASIC programs, listed the code and then ran it.

Here are the seven GIFs I whipped up.

Dartmouth BASIC An early Dartmouth BASIC program, performing a simple math exercise, as run on a simulator of the college's time-sharing system. The DTSS's Teletypes used yellow paper--and printed far more slowly than this recreationHarry McCracken / TIME 
Breakout This very early Apple II clone of Atari's Breakout--later known as Brick Out and Little Brick Out--was written by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak himself, in Integer BASIC, which he also wroteHarry McCracken / TIME 
Commodore 64 This one-line Commodore 64 program, which prints a never-ending, maze-like pattern, inspired an entire book of essays in 2012Harry McCracken / TIME 
Munchkin Attack David Plotkin's Munchkin Attack, an Atari game published as a type-in in SoftSide magazine in 1982, may remind you of a more famous arcade game. Being written in interpreted BASIC, it can just barely manage to move two on-screen characters at onceHarry McCracken / TIME 
basic-android Leo Christopherson's TRS-80 masterwork Android Nim (1978). Trust me: These graphics were amazing for the timeHarry McCracken / TIME 
donkey.bas DONKEY.BAS shipped with the original IBM PC in 1981. The most notable thing about it is its co-author, a fellow by the name of Bill Gates
Small Basic Microsoft's modern BASIC for beginners, Small Basic, proving that it can run an admirable version of Tetris

This isn't a complete history of BASIC: For instance, I didn't create an animated screen shot for Altair BASIC, one of the most important BASICs of them all. (Hey, it was both the first one for microcomputers and the first Microsoft product.) But the next time a major anniversary in the world of software happens, maybe I'll try to tell its story in GIFs, and only GIFs.

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