It’s easy to forget that everything you see and do on computers relies on a programming language. Computers are effectively binary switch detectors, differentiating between zeroes and ones while using this simple distinction to perform the varied wonders of today’s multimedia world. Every action a computer performs – from loading an operating system to supporting online gameplay – has been developed using one of a series of programming languages, designed to help man control and instruct machine. And arguably none of these other important programming languages have been as influential as Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, or BASIC, developed in the mid-1960s, and still cited as one of the most important programming languages ever devised.
A brief history lesson
BASIC was developed at a time when computers occupied entire rooms, and the concept of a home computer would have seemed like science fiction. Yet its simplicity inspired a small company called Microsoft to develop the high-level Microsoft BASIC language in the mid-1970s, using a tiny amount of RAM at a time when 4KB was often as much memory as a device could offer.
Itself inspired by the FORTRAN programming language, BASIC adopted a one-instruction-per-line format, with Boolean instructions like IF and THEN. This combination of instinctive accessibility, powerful versatility, and a diminutive footprint made it popular with hardware developers, and BASIC became a staple inclusion on what would become the 1980s’ explosion in personal computing. It featured in iconic hardware like the BBC Micro, Apple II, and the ZX Spectrum, which famously emitted screeching sounds as program code was loaded in from a cassette.
In an age when personal computers were still evolving, and their use as leisure tools seemed rather exotic, a raft of magazines appeared on newsagent shelves packed with program code listings. These were laboriously re-typed to create anything from a rudimentary graphics package to a Snake-style multi-level navigation game. In spare rooms around the world, people discovered that entering the program code could create a functioning piece of software out of a previously blank screen. Many of the leading software developers and computer specialists of the modern age cut their teeth in this way, learning as they went about terms like INKEY$, PEEK and DEF FN.
A lasting legacy
Languages like Java and Scala have become the most important programming languages in the modern age, but every one owes a significant debt of gratitude to BASIC. Without it, the whole concept of learning languages and procedural programming may have had less of an impact on the world. There were notable similarities between BASIC and C, which itself would evolve into multiple derivatives (C++, Objective C) and inspire subsequent programming languages.
It’s also worth noting that 55 years after its development, BASIC remains in use. Microsoft’s love of the language inspired them to create Visual Basic in 1991, updating the original architecture with a visual forms builder. To this day, Visual Basic is a popular language whose subroutines and Boolean statement-driven actions wouldn’t be unfamiliar to a 1980 coder. Similarly, Turbo Basic (first launched in 1985) remains in existence under the PowerBASIC title. Its lightweight and rapid native code compiler is still used to create streamlined applications for Windows 10. There’s even Small Basic, which helps beginners to develop their skills by creating increasingly detailed programs over time. Future generations of programmers and software specialists may yet grow up citing BASIC as playing a crucial role in their professional and personal development, just like their forefathers.