The Most Influential Programming Language

What would you say was the one programming language that had THE most influence on modern day computing?

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There are plenty of candidates to choose from. Some might say Javascript as it is the most used language according to Stack Overflow and GitHub. Some offer C++ as it helped usher in the world of object oriented design. Others counter with Java which brought the idea of write once, run anywhere, freeing us from platform dependence (kind of). You could offer up C or COBOL as both were firmly embedded in the corporate computing world.

But you would all be wrong (including the slightly unhinged person in the back saying Haskell wins). I am not asking about the most important or most popular, but the one that had widespread impact on the computer industry. From that standpoint, BASIC wins.

Before you throw your computer out the window in disgust, let me explain. What was the first language you ever encountered? For Millennials, I suspect the answer will be different, but for the Gen X crowd, the answer would most certainly have been BASIC.

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As basic as you can get…

I recently came across an article in Time Magazine from a few years back celebrating the 50th anniversary of BASIC. In the dawn of the computer age, two mathematics professors at a liberal arts college ushered in the personal computing revolution well before Microsoft, Apple, or Atari came on the scene.

John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz of Dartmouth College ran the first BASIC program on a General Electric mainframe at 4 a.m. on May 1, 1964. They actually ran two programs at the same time, proving not only that BASIC was a viable language, but that their time sharing system also worked.

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By June, the system was open to all Dartmouth students. With 11 Teletype machines and a language consisting of 14 commands, this early computing system led to 2000 students and 40% of the faculty learning how to program within three years. Eventually other schools would have access to the system and corporations started commercializing both the time sharing system and BASIC for their corporate customers.

Over the years, BASIC has had plenty of detractors. It was often accused of instilling poor programming techniques and could often lead to spaghetti code sprinkled in with liberal amounts of GOTO commands.

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The awesomeness of GOTO…

I was one of those kids fond of the GOTO. My first exposure to computers was when I got a Commodore 64. Frankly, I used it more to play games than doing any programming. But my school had introduced a programming class around the same time, and it was there that I first learned to code, enjoying my own experiments in spaghetti code.

The appeal of the language was its simplicity. The name alone, Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, was meant to convey the idea that the language should be as approachable as possible:

“We needed a language that could be ‘taught’ to virtually all students (and faculty) without their having to take a course.” — Thomas Kurtz

BASIC had no grand scheme to take over the world. As Kurtz stated, “We needed a language that could be ‘taught’ to virtually all students (and faculty) without their having to take a course.”

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BASIC was even a hit over in Russia…

Eventually the world took notice. Different versions of BASIC started coming on the market and accelerated as the PC revolution unfolded. Microsoft itself launched as a company creating BASIC, first for the Altair 8800, then for nearly every other PC.

BASIC was truly the first killer app for the PC, enabling anyone to program. Every PC bought had BASIC installed. Books and magazines and bulletin boards provide tons of resources and examples. You almost had to learn to program:

“Knowing how to use a computer was virtually synonymous with knowing how to program one.”

Eventually BASIC faded from everyday usage. More capable programming languages came on the scene. I spent my college years using Pascal and C and Unix shell scripts, as did many other engineering students. Professional programmers moved on to 4GL tools or object oriented languages.

Even Microsoft eventually moved away from BASIC. The often reviled Visual Basic at one time was one of the most popular languages around. The core engine was introduced into Microsoft Office (Joel Spolsky was responsible for creating VBA for Excel). It also was used in many other third party apps. Then in 2008, Microsoft ended support.

Even if BASIC is now a faded memory for most, it made computers approachable. PC’s had become affordable and the inclusion of BASIC made them useful through the plethora of code examples available. It gave computers a purpose for the everyday person:

“The goal of Kemeny and Kurtz was to make these great, new and interesting machines available to a much broader group of minds. They succeeded.” — Dan Rockmore, chair of Dartmouth’s math department

Could another language have made as much of a lasting and significant impact? Probably not to the extent of BASIC. It’s beauty was in being easy enough for anyone to understand and seeing your results immediately. This probably explains the current dominance of Javascript as the main programming language of choice, it is simple and immediate.

What programming language did you start with? Did you ever use BASIC outside of school or as a hobby?

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Jon Skeet Facts

Okay, not really a question, but a VERY entertaining journey into Meta …

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