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BASIC Necessities: How GE Helped Launch The Computing Language That Changed The World

Liz Wishaw And Tomas Kellner
October 11, 2019
In the wee hours on May 1, 1964, in the basement of Dartmouth’s College Hall, something extraordinary happened. Professor John Kemeny and a student typed a single-word command, “RUN,” from two separate computer terminals at the same time, and the program executed flawlessly. “That marriage of simultaneity and simple language is the birth of BASIC,” said Dan Rockmore, a professor in Dartmouth’s mathematics and computer science department. 
Although it may seem unsophisticated now, this moment’s impact was tremendous. This event set in motion the enormous leaps in technology that enabled personal in-home web browsing, data spreadsheets, word processing, email and gaming platforms. It was the advent of the programming language known as BASIC (Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), aided by technology developed at GE by Arnold Spielberg and his dogged peers.  

In the late 1950s, Spielberg, father of the famous Hollywood movie director, helped develop the GE-225 mainframe computer that the Dartmouth team first used to run BASIC while working in GE’s Industrial Computer Department in Phoenix, Arizona. At the time, the unit’s name was starkly prescriptive — Ralph Cordiner, then-GE chairman and CEO, wanted to make computers for industry, period. “Every time a plan was sent to him that mentioned going into business computers, he would write ‘No’ across it and send it back,” Spielberg said in a 1987 interview

Undeterred and unsanctioned, the Industrial Computer Department toiled away on their business computer. By 1959, Spielberg and colleague Charles Propster had designed the GE-225, a 20-bit computer that filled an entire room with its 1,000 circuit boards, 10,000 transistors and 20,000 diodes. Data could be stored on portable items, such as disks, magnetic tapes, punch cards and paper tapes. Operators, sitting at up to 11 external terminals, could independently access the computer’s memory. 

 width= Arnold Spielberg, father of heralded director Steven Spielberg, is a legend in his own right. Pictured here in 1961, the pioneering technologist helped design the GE-225 mainframe computer — the same machine Dartmouth researchers used to develop the BASIC programming language just three years later. Above image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady. Top image credit: Trustees of Dartmouth College.

By the time Cordiner found out what this computer team was doing, it was too late. The department had already secured Bank of America as a customer. And the CEO was not happy. “[He] came out to attend the dedication ceremonies and promptly fired Barney Oldfield [who ran the department] right after the ceremony for violating his rules,” Spielberg said. “He gave the company 18 months to get out of the business.”

But the GE-225 was a smash hit when GE released it in the early ‘60s. The marketing team took “landside” early orders — at $250,000 a pop ($1.9 million in today’s money) — going on to sell dozens to customers, as well as to other GE units. “The GE-225 can add 30,000 six-digit numbers in one second and can calculate the ages of every man, woman and child in Schenectady in 5 seconds,” wrote the Schenectady Works News, a GE newspaper. A unit at First Union National Bank in North Carolina predicted the results of the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater presidential race within 5 percentage points, reported the GE Monogram magazine. The Cleveland Browns football team used a GE-225 to manage season ticket sales. “Who knows,” quipped Art Modell, the Browns’ president, in 1966, “there might come a time when computers will help call the next play.”

Arnold Spielberg left GE in 1963; that same year, Dartmouth’s “BASIC team” traveled to Arizona to learn how to program the equipment. Their intent: to enable the student body to use it simultaneously from terminals throughout their campus. It was John McGeachie and fellow student Mike Busch who figured out how to make those different terminals talk to one another. “There were a lot of all-nighters,“ McGeachie told Dartmouth Now


Kemeny wanted to develop a language people could use to speak to the computer to have their ideas processed. “What BASIC did, it really democratized computing along with time-sharing,” said Tom Cormen, then-chair of Dartmouth’s computer science department. Time-sharing, which was in its infancy at the time, allowed multiple people to interact with a central computer simultaneously, thereby making more efficient use of the computer’s processing power. “Now people had access to computers because of time-sharing and they could write their own computer programs because of BASIC,” Cormen said.

After the Dartmouth team’s success, GE got the green light to use BASIC on its own time-sharing system. Meanwhile, the computing language spread, eventually finding its way to a quizzical high school student named Steve Wozniak. “We didn’t have a computer in the school but GE, I think, brought in a terminal with modem to promote their time-sharing business,” the Apple co-founder wrote in Gizmodo. “A very few of we bright math students were given some pages of instruction and we wrote some very simple programs in BASIC.”

The lesson stuck. Wozniak went on to create his own version of BASIC, which enabled him to code early computer games in color. With this, he and his friend Steve Jobs knew they’d struck gold. “Steve and I both realized how important it was going to be now that animated (arcade style) games could be software,” Wozniak wrote. “More than that, being in BASIC meant that anyone of any age could program it.”