nerd vanity


50 years ago at 4 a.m., a Dartmouth student and professor ran the very first BASIC program.

In the 1950s, if you were at Dartmouth and you wanted to run a computer program, you had to translate that code into a bunch of little holes on a punch card, drive the 125 miles to MIT where a room-sized computer was humming away, and then wait two hours.

But Tom Kurtz (seen in the second image holding a reel of magnetic tape) decided to change that. He developed a system where students and faculty could send their code to MIT via a teletype machine. To make computer programming even more accessible to students, Kurtz and his colleague John Kemeny created a simple programming language called BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). It made programming much more intuitive.

“People who absolutely never would have engaged with a computer before were engaging with computers,” says Dartmouth professor Dan Rockmore.It spread so quickly that the telephone company had to put in new trunk lines … so that everyone who wanted to get on the computer could get on the computer.”

Here more about BASIC from Joe Palca.

Image 3: Some of the first computer nerds look over a program printout in 1969.

Image 4: John Kemeny and his daughter Jennifer look genuinely awed by this revolutionary technology. The lady in the portrait remains unimpressed. 

Image 5: Kemeny’s vanity plates. If this car still exists, I will buy it. Let me know. 

All photos by Adrian N. Bouchard, courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library and Dartmouth College