John G. Kemeny, inventor of BASIC
In the 1950s, computers could speak and understand English. Anybody could communicate with them, no training required.
Surprised? Well, in those days, computers weren’t the machines we think of today. “Computer” was another job title like “Chief Executive” or “Mechanic”, a title given to people who helped with calculations.
These computers were often from poor backgrounds, and their job was therefore looked down upon too. The 2016 movie Hidden Figures tells the story of some of those computers: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, the hitherto unacknowledged ladies who, from the backstage, made essential calculations enabling the first American to go into space.
Contrast that with the respect given to electronic computers of the time. Large, bulky machines built from switches, relays, rotating shafts, and clutches.
One example was the seventeen IBM ASCC machines, also called Harvard Mark I, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, USA. It could not speak English. Trained technicians would feed in instructions via buttons or punch-cards, and they would take weeks to answer even the simplest of problems. And the problems weren’t simple at all: the operators here were trying to calculate the effects of implosion of an atom-bomb.
These Mark I computers — or “calculators”, as they were called — were the first ones encountered by John G. Kemeny, when he joined in 1943. Little did he know at the time, he would end up inventing a language that, if not quite English, made computer programming easy enough for anybody and everybody to know.
But let’s rewind a bit.
John George Kemeny, or Kemény János György, was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1926 — on the last day of May, if you want to be precise. His father left for the United States in 1938, when Hitler had come to power in Germany and an anti-Jewish law in Hungary was becoming imminent. The whole family joined him in New York City two years later, when the young Kemeny was just fourteen.
Despite having to learn English, Kemeny did well at the George Washington High School, and graduated with the best results in his class three years later. That was when he joined Princeton University to study mathematics and philosophy.
By now, Hungary had joined forces with the Hitler-led Axis powers, and many people were being killed in the Holocaust. Among them were John Kemeny’s grandfather, who had refused to leave the country, along with an uncle and aunt.
The USA had entered the war by this point, and as fears of the enemy developing an atom-bomb, they started a secret project to create one of their own. This was the Manhattan Project, and John Kemeny was one of the people called up to help in it.
Taking a year’s leave from Princeton, he went to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he worked under well-known physicist Richard Feynman. While there, Kemeny also got to work with John von Neumann, another Hungarian-born mathematician best known for his contributions to computing and for coining the term ‘cybernetics’.
However, the most well-known person whom Kemeny got to work with, at least for the general public, would be Albert Einstein.
That was in 1948, after Feynman had completed his B.A and gone one to do his doctorate under Alonzo Church.
Einstein needed help with his mathematics. Now don’t get me wrong. Einstein was pretty decent at maths, but physics was his speciality. He wasn’t up to date on the latest cutting-edge mathematics — and that’s where the research assistants came in.
Einstein had several research assistants, of which Kemeny was only one. They provided him with the latest mathematical techniques — but there was another reason as well.
Everyone makes mistakes, you see, and, the longer a calculation, the more scope for mistakes there is. And the calculations that Einstein worked with were very long: deriving one formula from another to solve a differential equation, in a process that, according to Kemeny, can go on seemingly forever. It would be hard to spot out errors in that — or, as a programmer would say, “there’s no way to debug that mess”.
The solution? Multiple people working on the same problem. Einstein and Kemeny (or the other research assistants) would work on the same problem independently, and compare answers at the end. Since the calculations were so long, if the answers matched, they could be fairly certain it was correct. Not much chance that everyone made exactly the same mistakes in exactly the same way!
So it was that, before Kemeny started working on computers, he worked as a sort of “computer” himself.
Kemeny completed his doctorate in 1949, aged 23, for a dissertation on “Type-Theory vs. Set-Theory”. He also completed his marriage, wedding Jean Alexander from coastal Maine, USA, of whom we will hear more later.
Kemeny was appointed to the Dartmouth Mathematics Department in 1953, four years after his dissertation — and within two years’ time, he had already become its chairman. It was there that Kemeny met Thomas Kurtz, another PhD from Princeton, who had taken a pay cut to work at Dartmouth and was looking for ways to increase his income.
Kemeny suggested an IBM research fellowship at the MIT computing site nearby. This happened in the summer of 1956. The computer and cognitive scientist John McCarthy had arranged a course in “artificial intelligence” — probably the first time that the term was ever used in a course.
While Kemeny and Kurtz were teaching students to program, they realised the current language — Assembly — was very complicated and cumbersome. You needed to know a lot of maths, as well as tiny details of how computers were constructed. This was no way to learn programming!
So they teamed up to create Darsimco, or Dartmouth Simplified Code. It was basically a system of templates, with each Darsimco command corresponding to a small sequence of Assembly commands. Instead of knowing how to juggle bits and bytes around, people could use the Darsimco commands, blocks of code that had already been pre-written for them.
After this came the Dartmouth Oversimplified Programming Experiment, or Dope — a language even simpler than Darsimco. Unfortunately, it was so simple as to be almost useless.
By this time the new high-level FORTRAN language had come around, which made programming less tedious — but people still needed a mathematical background to use it. (For those with the background, FORTRAN can be very powerful: that’s why physicists use the later versions of it even today).
Kemeny and Kurtz wanted something people could start using right from day one. And the result was BASIC.
BASIC, or Beginner’s All-purpose Simplified Instruction Code, had simple English-like commands that users could type in to make the computer do things. There was
BYE to log on and off,
UNSAVE to manage programs in the permanent storage, and so on.
Programming became less like punching keys in a calculator, and more like outlining them as a recipe.
BASIC became very popular, with companies like Microsoft taking it and spinning their own versions. It is probably John Kemeny’s most lasting contribution to the world, though by no means his last one.
Apart from basic, a major contribution by Kurtz and Kemeny was their time-sharing system, allowing multiple users run programs at once without having to wait in a queue. Digital multi-taskers of today, you have the Kurtz and Kemeny’s Dartmouth Time-Sharing System (DTSS) to thank for your abilities!
In 1970, Kemeny was appointed President of Dartmouth, at age 44. He stayed there for eleven years, before resigning to continue teaching. His term as President was an eventful one.
Kemeny introduced many reforms at Dartmouth, including making it into a co-ed university: up till then, it had been for boys only. He also designed the “Dartmouth Plan”, restructuring the academic schedule to a trimester system — giving students the flexibility to pursue projects outside of campus, and also allowing the University to take in more students without having to make more buildings.
Kemeny was reportedly very popular among the students, making himself accessible to them. He was proactive in recruiting and retaining minority students, and also revived Dartmouth’s founding commitment to provide education for American Indians.
But Kemeny did not complete all these achievements alone. By his side was his wife, Jean Alexander Kemeny, who rose to prominence as an outspoken activist in her own right, coming out in support of civil and women’s rights, as well as Dartmouth’s conversion to coeducation. Jean later wrote a memoir, It’s Different at Dartmouth, chronicling her decade as “First Lady” of the university.
In the middle of this, Kemeny was called up by then U.S. President Jimmy Carter, to head the investigation into the Three Mile Island nuclear incident. The final report was very critical of the Federal regulators, as well as the lax safety standards of the nuclear power industry at the time.
Kemeny retired from presidency of Dartmouth in 1981, in order to return to teaching. Two years later, he and Kurtz co-founded True BASIC Inc. to promote and market BASIC in a commercial manner. Despite that, Kemeny continued teaching at Dartmouth until 1990.
John Kemeny passed away two years later, aged 66. But the language he co-created still lives on, in its many versions and forms, even half a century later.