50 PRINT “HAPPY BIRTHDAY”

I think BASIC’s greatest strength may be that it was something that many people — not just those with a particular background — could learn. There was no gatekeeper, either literally or figuratively: you didn’t have to push punchcards under a bank-teller window nor did you have to learn recursion before learning recursion. In the 80s, virtually every machine ran BASIC and learning how to login and start the interpreter was generally the hardest part of beginning to “program an X machine.”

People get drop-through imperative programming: either the line-by-line flexibility of BASIC or the blocks of FORTRAN and Flash (I didn’t understand Flash until I realized that it’s just FORTRAN with worse numerics and better graphics). You don’t have to be a born programmer to understand:

 10 PRINT "HELP! I AM CAUGHT IN A PROGRAM LOOP!"
 20 GOTO 10

I imagine that 95% of the people who got a passing grade in their BASIC programming class or typed in a few games from the back of COMPUTE! magazine never wrote themselves another program. But the 5% who did found that personal computers could help them in their job. And the 1-in-100 or 1-in-1000 who went beyond that found themselves in a community where only drive and talent mattered and credentials meant nothing.

I’m a college dropout and never took a CS course in my life. At 25 I was hired as Technical Editor for a magazine that specialized in Artificial Intelligence and for Computer Language, the best programming magazine of all time (as far as size or circulation goes, we were the “We Try Harder” Avis to Dr. Dobb’s Journal‘s Hertz).

Today, the design of programming languages is discussed at sites like Lambda the Ultimate and while I can muddle through even some of the more arcane papers, and while I understand the value of a dense, high signal-to-noise ratio on certain topics, it seems to me that there’s not nearly enough reflection on the market triumphs of popular languages. I’m not advocating a return to the line-numbered BASIC interpreters (single-threaded, as if that had to be mentioned!) of my youth, but I am saying that 50 years ago, Kemeny, Kurtz, and colleagues captured lightning in a bottle. So did Dan Bricklin, inventor of the computerized spreadsheet, another tool for manipulating data and calculations that empowered an audience vastly larger than that emerging from the bottleneck of “Computer Science courses at good universities.”

I’m not suggesting that marketshare is the only, or even dominant, factor in assessing a language’s quality. In the case of JavaScript, for instance, I see an example of the contingent nature of history, as discussed in Steven Jay Gould’s classic Wonderful Life. JavaScript is a market triumph, it behooves all professional programmers to master it, but I think it’s fair to say that it has some flaws as a programming language.

Nor am I saying that there’s not a lot of discussion of “beginner’s languages.” I volunteer at a local school and am tremendously impressed by Scratch, for instance. Because Scratch is accessible at such a young age, it may generate the same kind of nostalgia that some of us share for BASIC. But I don’t suspect that it will have the truly broad, industry-expanding impact of BASIC or Flash.

Today, there’s some talk of functional programming sweeping over the industry in the same way that object-orientation did in the early 1990s. I am not a functional programming True Believer, but I truly believe that functional programming has advantages. And it seems to me that languages such as F# on the CLR and Scala on the JVM have a “you can have it all” aspect (no-hassle availability of libraries, the ability to integrate with legacy code, object-functional hybrid type-systems) that at the very least make them appealing to some teams.

But, although perhaps not as broadly accessible as line numbers and GOTO, OOP has something of BASIC’s “learnability.” We can teach OOP to a lot of people, without a lot of preliminaries. And some will struggle through, and some will have a comfortable understanding, and some will have taken a step towards design and architecting large systems. With Functional Programming, it’s not as clear to me that there’s that same “muddle through” path. It’s hard for me to imagine a better introduction to functional ideas than the early chapters of Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, but I think of that as a text that weeds out, not one that expands the base. If you’re a natural-born programmer with a semester in front of you SICP is a great book. But if you “just” have potential or are a working developer with a “where does this help my day-to-day problems?” pragmatism, I don’t know what you should read.

Goto 10

BASIC was the first programming language for most of those in my generation. We sat in front of green- and amber-texted monitors or machines that spooled seemingly infinite reams of paper. We typed on chiclet keys and teletypes, punched papertape and cards and threaded magnetic reels. Compared to today’s machines we had indistinguishable-from-0 working memory or horsepower.

You have no idea how fun it was.

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