Who needs a primary when we’re first in the nation for computer programming history? 

  • The New Hampshire Department of Transportation has installed a historical marker near the Hanover town line on Route 120 to mark the invention of the BASIC computer language at Dartmouth College in 1964. Geoff Hansen / Valley News

  • Tom Kurtz, right, talks during an event to showcase Dartmouth computing projects in Hanover on April 30, 2014.  Kurtz co-created the BASIC computer programming language that is the topic of the state’s latest historical highway marker. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Monitor staff
Published: 6/10/2019 6:23:43 PM

It took 10 months to get it done, but the Granite State is now officially a Geeky State: The latest New Hampshire Historical Highway Marker, celebrating the creation of the BASIC computer language at Dartmouth in 1964, has officially been installed.

Everybody who has ever typed a GOTO command can feel proud.

As you know, loyal reader, I can feel particularly proud. Last August, I wrote in this column that the 255 official historical markers placed alongside state roads told us enough about covered bridges and birthplaces of famous people but not enough about geekiness. Since anybody can submit a suggestion for a new sign, I thought I’d give it a shot.

The creation of BASIC, the first programing language designed to let newbies dip their intellectual toes into the cutting-edge world of software, seemed the obvious candidate.

Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code has probably has done more to introduce more people to computer programming than anything ever created. That includes me: The only functioning programs I’ve ever created were in vanilla BASIC, and I still recall the great satisfaction of typing “100.END.”

But BASIC wasn’t just a toy for classrooms. It proved robust enough to survive for decades, helping launch Microsoft along the way, and there are descendants still in use today. In short, it’s way more important than any covered bridge.

I contacted Thomas Kurtz, the retired Dartmouth math professor who created BASIC along with the late John Kemeny, and asked what he thought of the idea. He gave me the thumbs-up. I approached Dartmouth College, which created a big website when BASIC turned 50 in 2014 (dartmouth.edu/basicfifty/basic.html), and they liked the idea, too. Recently retired math professor Scot Drysdale came to help me out.

Our original idea was to mention both BASIC and the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System, an early system by which far-flung computers could share resources. They were created hand-in-hand as part of Kemeny’s idea of putting computing in the hands of the unwashed masses.

However, the N.H. Division of Historical Resources, which has decades of experience creating these markers, said it would be too hard to cram both concepts into the limited verbiage of a sign. DTSS’s time in the spotlight will have to wait, in the meantime you can play with an emulator at dtss.dartmouth.edu/index.php.

To take a selfie with the new marker, find it on the east side of Route 120 about halfway between the old Trumbull Nelson facility and Hanover Public Works.

That location might seem a little odd but state highway markers have to be on state highways and all the roads around Dartmouth College are owned by Hanover or the college itself, so this was about as close as we could get to the school on a visible, well-traveled route.

By the way, the marker is so new that the state hasn’t added it to their official list yet.

So what’s next? Last year I put out a call for suggestions for the next geek-oriented historical marker, once this gets done.

Ideas included the first use of the term “artificial intelligence” at the Dartmouth Conference in 1956, the 2013 twin-prime conjecture breakthrough by “Tom” Zhang at UNH, and Dean Kamen’s invention of the infusion pump for diabetics, which launched his R&D empire and Manchester’s status as a tech hub.

But the first of those is too similar, geographically and conceptually, to the BASIC marker; the second is maybe too geeky; and the third – well, Kamen hardly needs more celebration. That also goes for Ralph Baer’s team developing the first home video game in Nashua; that already has a plaque in Nashua, not to mention a statue in Manchester.

We want something that’s interesting, important and just a bit surprising. Here’s my favorite idea, suggested by a reader in Milford: Celebrate Bernice Perry, one of the first and perhaps the best-known aerial photographer in New Hampshire and also the first woman pilot in New Hampshire.

Perry got her pilot’s license in 1929 when flying was as much an engineering feat as a job in transportation, and was later the first woman commercial pilot in all of New England. She was a charter member of the Ninety-Nines, the pioneering group of American female aviators headed by Amelia Earhart at a time when by some measures there were only 99 female pilots in the country.

Perry’s aerial photography is all over the place in Milford, including a gigantic shot of the town that adorns a bank which just reopened as a high-end restaurant, so that’s where I’d like to see a plaque.

I don’t think I’ll have to do much lifting on this one. The Milford Historical Society has a ton of information on Perry and the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire at Manchester airport had a program about her work this spring, on the 90th anniversary of her pilot’s license. It should be a breeze!

I will, of course, keep you posted.


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