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What is BASIC?

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  • Written By: N. Madison
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  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2016
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Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC) is a family of easy-to-use programming languages. Introduced in 1963, the initial purpose of this high-level language was to make computers accessible to non-science students. Along with its variations, it enjoyed widespread popularity for microcomputers in the 1970s. It gained a similar level of popularity with personal computers in the '80s.

Early computers were highly specialized, expensive machines that were used for the performance of special tasks, such as calculating scientific formulas and processing data. In the 1960s, however, computers began to change, becoming less expensive and faster. Computers represented a major expense and programming languages were very difficult to use. As such, computers were impractical for ordinary users.

As computers became faster and more affordable, people began to consider their viability for commercial use and computers capable of time-sharing were introduced. Time-sharing allowed multiple users to access and use the same central processing unit (CPU) and system memory. Computers grew steadily faster. Eventually, they grew fast enough that users were able to forget they were sharing with others. Soon, it became possible for hundreds of users to share a sole CPU.

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BASIC was created for students to use in writing programs for the time-sharing system at Dartmouth University, supporting teaching and research requirements. Its purpose was to eliminate the issues caused by older and more complex programming languages, creating a language that was better suited to individuals lacking a highly technical or arithmetic-based background. This programming language was the first dialect of it and became known as Dartmouth BASIC. Other dialects were introduced in the years following its design and implementation.

In 1975, BASIC began moving towards more widespread use. At the time, typical programming languages consumed more memory than average computer users had available on their systems. BASIC’s designers began to consider its viability for microcomputers. A variation, named Tiny BASIC, was one of the first to be used for microcomputers, such as the MITS Altair 8800. The Altair 8800 is often recognized as the beginning of the personal computer revolution that marked the next few years.

Altair BASIC was released in 1975 as Microsoft BASIC; Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Monte Davidoff were credited with its development. Soon, other versions of it were developed under other platforms. At one point, this language was considered standard on most home computers. Eventually, new languages were created and BASIC lost a good deal of its importance to home computer users. Versions of it live on, however, through hobbyists, developers, and others interested in a simple computer language.

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