John G. Kemeny: BASIC and DTSS: Everyone a Programmer

     Sadly, an important pioneer of the computer revolution has 
died. John G. Kemeny, co-inventor of the computer language BASIC 
and of the Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS) and advocate of 
universal education in programming died unexpectedly on December 
26, 1992. He was 66 years old.
     John Kemeny was born in Budapest on May 31, 1926. His 
education and intellectual development in Hungary must have been 
very impressive, but in 1940, to escape the Nazi tide, his family 
emigrated to New York City. Kemeny entered high school knowing 
virtually no English. He graduated three years later, first in 
his class and accepted at Princeton University to study 
     By the time Kemeny turned 18, he had finished his first year 
at Princeton. He was immediately drafted and sent to Los Alamos 
to be a "computer", one of 20 operators who used 17 IBM book 
keeping calculators to get numerical solutions to differential 
equations connected with the design of the atom bomb. It took two 
or three weeks, working three 8 hour shifts six days per week to 
get one result. The calculators were feed punched cards, which 
were moved manually from machine to machine. Between 
calculations, their plug boards had to be rewired by hand. At the 
end of a cycle the calculation was summarized on a printout which 
had to be checked by eye for "catastrophes". If any were found, 
the cycle had to be repeated. Years later, Kemeny was to note 
that one undergraduate working one afternoon, using a 1970 time 
sharing computer could solve as many differential equations as 
the whole Los Alamos team did in a whole year and there could be 
100 other users on the computer at the same time.
     While at Los Alamos, Kemeny heard a lecture by fellow 
Hungarian born John von Neumann who was a consultant to the 
computer operation. Von Neumann proposed a fully electronic 
computer based on a binary number system, with internal memory 
for both data and a stored program. To Kemeny and the other 
"computers", von Neumann's machine sounded like a dream. Kemeny 
wondered if he would live long enough to ever use one.
     After the war, Kemeny returned to Princeton. In 1948-49, 
while finishing his dissertation, Kemeny served as Albert 
Einstein's research assistant at the Institute for Advanced 
Study. Von Neumann was at the Institute also, working on the 
machine he had described in his lecture two years earlier. 
Einstein and Kemeny crossed paths with von Neumann occasionally 
and had some long conversations concerning symbol handling as 
opposed to number handling computers.
     Kemeny finished his Ph.D and stayed at Princeton teaching 
math and philosophy until 1953. During his time at Princeton, his 
contact with von Neumann and his computer had a deep effect on 
Kemeny. Here was the brilliant mathematician playing around with 
the nuts and bolts of a computing machine and raising profound 
philosophic questions about the relation between humans and 
machines. In a Scientific American article, "Man Viewed as a 
Machine" (vol. 192, April, 1955, pages 58-67) Kemeny summarized 
lectures von Neumann had given just before Kemeny left Princeton. 
Kemeny framed the question of these lectures, "What could a 
machine do as well or better than a man?" The conclusion in 1955 
was that computers calculate faster than the human brain, may 
eventually match the human brain in memory capacity but have a 
long way to go to exceed the compactness of the human brain or 
the complexity the human brain is capable of dealing with. Next, 
based on the work of the English logician Alan Turing, Kemeny 
argued that a universal machine can be designed. That universal 
machine would need a simple code designed for it that would 
describe any simple machine humans could devise. Then the 
universal machine could do anything every simple machine could do 
by converting the descriptions of the simple machines into 
programs for its own operation. It occurred to Kemeny that "a 
normal human being is like the universal machine. Given enough 
time he can learn to do anything." (ibid, p. 63) Kemeny carried 
this understanding with him throughout his career of encouraging 
universal teaching of computer programming.
     In the summer of 1953, while a consultant at the Rand 
Corporation, Kemeny had a chance to use the JONIAC, a copy of von 
Neumann's Princeton computer.  He had great fun, he wrote, 
"learning to program a computer, even though the language used at 
that time was designed for machines and not for human beings." 
(Man and The Computer, New York, 1972, p. 7)
     Kemeny joined the faculty of Dartmouth College in 1953 to 
teach math and philosophy. For six years after he got there, 
Dartmouth had no computer. Kemeny could however commute 135 miles 
each way to use the computer at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 
He did and, therefore, witnessed the coming in 1957 of the 
FORTRAN programming language. Kemeny welcomed FORTRAN because it 
made much more sense to him to teach a machine a language that is 
easier for human beings to learn than to force every human to 
learn the machine's own language. "All of a sudden access to 
computers by thousands of users became not only possible but 
reasonable." (Ibid, p. 8)
     Dartmouth acquired its first computer in 1959, a very small 
computer called the LGP-30. Kemeny facilitated the use of the 
LGP-30 by undergraduate students. The ingenuity and creativeness 
of some of the students who had been given hands-on experience 
amazed the Dartmouth faculty. Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, also of 
the Dartmouth math department, were thus encouraged to "set in 
motion the then revolutionary concept of making computers as 
freely available to college students as library books." 
(Portraits in Silicon, Robert Slater, Cambridge, 1987, p.22) The 
aim was to make accessible to all students the wonderful research 
environment that computers could provide.
     The work of Kemeny and Kurtz in the early 1960's took two 
directions. Influenced by the work of J.C.R. Licklider and John 
McCarthy at MIT, Kemeny understood that a time sharing system 
would make possible the universal access they aimed for. A team 
of the two faculty members and a group of undergraduate research 
assistants developed a prototype system. It allowed multiple 
users short spurts of access to the central computer from remote 
terminals in such a way that each user enjoyed the illusion that 
he was the sole user. This Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS) 
became operational in the Fall of 1964. The value of a time 
sharing system is that it ended the hardship of batch processing 
which often required hours or even days of waiting between runs 
of a program while it was being developed and debugged. Time 
sharing utilizes the great speed of computers compared to humans 
to greatly enhance the efficiency of computing from the point of 
view of the human users.
     Today's packet switching networks (e.g, the Internet) owe a 
great deal to the development of this time sharing system 
conceptually and technically. But earlier, DTSS almost got 
derailed. Kemeny had worked closely with General Electric during 
the time DTSS was being worked on. In 1966, GE and Dartmouth 
agreed to work on a joint development of the time sharing 
operating system. However GE's commercial purposes conflicted 
with Dartmouth's educational purposes. The story is told that GE 
tried to "stop the Dartmouth experiment" and the development of 
the time sharing system called Phase I. (See e.g., Computer Lib, 
Ted Nelson, South Bend, 1974, p. 45). But Kemeny and Kurtz, 
determined not to let DTSS disappear, encouraged the development 
of DTSS Phase II by 1969.
     In addition to time sharing, Kemeny and Kurtz realized that 
a new computer language was needed that could be easily learned 
and accessible to typical college students. Kemeny noted, "We at 
Dartmouth envisaged the possibility of millions of people writing 
their own computer programs." (Man and the Computer, p. 30) They 
designed their language with plain English and high school 
algebra like commands and so that the lay user could learn a very 
few commands and then be able to write interesting programs. 
Kemeny started to work on a draft version in September, 1963. The 
result was BASIC, Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction 
Code. The first BASIC program ran on May 1, 1964 at 4:00 am. 
Kemeny and Kurtz made an effort to get as many students as 
possible using BASIC and they  were available to hear about 
problems and bugs and to come up with bug fixes. Kemeny and Kurtz 
wanted BASIC to be in the public domain. Dartmouth copyrighted 
BASIC but made it available without charge.
     The careful work of Kemeny and Kurtz to make an easy to 
learn but powerful computer language bore tremendous fruit. After 
its introduction at Dartmouth in 1964, BASIC spread as did DTSS 
to other campuses and government and military situations. And 
BASIC made personal computers possible. Beginning in 1975 with 
the success of Bill Gates and Paul Allen to write an interpreter 
for a subset of BASIC commands for the Altair computer, one form 
or another of BASIC spread to and accelerated the personal 
computer revolution. (See Amateur Computerist, vol 2 no 4, p. 9-
     For awhile the great appeal of personal computers and their 
falling costs and general availability eclipsed Kemeny and 
Kurtz's seminal work on DTSS and the original BASIC. By the late 
1980's, 10 to 12 million school children had learned BASIC, more 
people than speak, e.g., Norwegian. The personal computer helped 
"distribute" computing, which Kemeny thought was crucial to the 
progress of society. But it also diminished in importance the 
centralized computing power and the interconnectivity of users 
that time sharing made possible. Only recently, with the spread 
of computer networks is the value of both developments being 
realized. Now the power of personal computer work stations 
instead of dumb terminals coupled with the connectivity and 
remote resource availability is making possible the human-
computer and human-human interfacing that Kemeny predicted.
     From 1971 to 1980, Kemeny was the thirteenth President of 
Dartmouth College presiding for example over the transition there 
to coeducation. He continued his efforts to support a crucial 
role for computers in education but was unable to be a major 
contributor to developments like the personal computer and the 
various versions of BASIC. In 1979, Kemeny served as the chairman 
of President Carter's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile 
Island. Kemeny "very much regretted" that the Commission did not 
recommend a temporary halt on construction permits for nuclear 
reactors. The investigation had found that the government 
regulators were too lax in their regulation. The Commission 
concluded, "the evidence suggests that the NRC (Nuclear 
Regulatory Commission) has sometimes erred on the side of the 
industry's convenience rather than carrying out its primary 
mission of insuring safety" and that the industry took inadequate 
safety precautions and failed to respond to known unsafe 
conditions. (The Report of The President's Commission on the 
Accident at Three Mile Island, pp. 43, 51 and 188)
     After Kemeny stopped being President of Dartmouth and 
Chairman of the Three Mile Island Accident Commission, he took 
stock of the use of computers especially in education. He was 
furious and frustrated by the slow progress of education in 
computer programming, although it is not clear whether he was 
aware of the forces like Ford Motor Company which opposed that 
progress. Between 1983 and 1985, Kemeny and Kurtz went back to 
work and produced a more powerful version of their original 
BASIC. They called it TRUE BASIC and it is still marketed today 
with the intention of introducing "students to the very important 
art of computer programming and analytic thinking."
     Kemeny had a very broad vision of the role computers would 
play in society. He foresaw a man-machine symbiosis that would 
help both to evolve rapidly. In the early 1970's he predicted 
that within 20 years there would be a national computer network 
with terminals in millions of homes, so every home would be a 
mini university. He also predicted there would be a National 
Automated Reference Library, a national personalized computer 
delivered news service, and, especially, greatly enhanced education 
via time sharing and simple programming languages. Kemeny worked 
hard to implement his visions and felt by the late 1980's great 
disappointment in the slow progress. He died just as the great 
computer networking structures that have developed in some large 
measure because of his pioneering work and vision have begun to 
fulfill more of his expectations but also just as a fight is 
being waged by those who want to commercialize theses networking 
structures and those who want to keep them in the public domain.
     Kemeny recognized that the social problems that have yet to 
be solved are immense. He wrote, "while computers alone cannot 
solve the problems of society, these problems are too complex to 
be solved without highly sophisticated use of computers." (Ibid, 
p.80) and that it is imperative that computers be freely 
available. "Only if we manage to bring up a computer-educated 
generation will society have modern computers fully available to 
solve its serious problems." (Ibid) He saw the computer 
revolution as a possible asset for society but felt "it is a 
major mistake to make plans for the solution of social problems 
on the assumption that society will in the future will be 
organized in exactly the same way as today. For the first time in 
human history we have an opportunity for significant social 
planning. We cannot afford to waste it." (Ibid, p.143)
     John Kemeny was part of many of the seminal events of the 
computer revolution. He made major contributed to its foundation 
and he thought deeply into this revolution. His death was 
untimely but he has left the value of his work to help us take on 
the challenges that confront the progress that he contributed to.