N.H. historical marker will honor creation of BASIC computer language

  • Tom Kurtz in his computer room in his home in Hanover, on Aug. 9, 2018. Kurtz is one of two people that created the BASIC computer language and launched one of the first long-distance computer networks, the Dartmouth time-sharing system – feats that will soon be recognized in the state’s official roadside historical marker program. Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. August Frank

  • This is the geekiest geek existing state historical marker – but it’s pretty weird. It marks the spot of an alleged extraterrestrial encounter by Betty and Barney Hill in Portsmouth in 1961. Monitor file

Granite Geek
Published: 12/31/2018 4:21:20 PM

The upcoming year may or may not turn out to be a good one,
but one thing is certain: It will see an uptick in New Hampshire’s geek status.

How do I know? Because my quest to publicly acknowledge the Granite State as the birthplace of the BASIC computer language has gotten the thumbs up!

By this spring, according to the folks at the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resource, the state will erect a new roadside official historical marker in Hanover. Unlike the 256 others that already exist, this one won’t worry about dead politicians or covered bridges but will let the world know that BASIC, the first user-friendly computer language and one of the tools that launched the PC revolution, was developed at Dartmouth in 1964.

It will also acknowledge the development of the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System, which allowed the creation of a sort of pre-internet internet that was the first connection to the online world for many New Englanders in the 1970s, including me at college.

For those new to this story I’ll give some background in a moment – but first, we need to decide on our next goal.

What other geeky events happened in New Hampshire that are worthy of being memorialized on roadside historical markers? If you’ve got suggestions, send me an email (dbrooks@cmonitor.com). Here are a few ideas:

■The development of the first home video game by Ralph Baer of Manchester while he worked at Sanders Associates in Nashua is a real possibility, but there’s already a group raising money to create a plaza in his honor in the Queen City, complete with a statue of him. A historical marker would be a bit of a letdown compared to that.

■An obvious idea is something to do with inventor supreme Dean Kamen, but I think we need to let him finish his career before we memorialize him.

■How about this: Inventor Samuel Morey, who settled in Orford and received the first patent in New Hampshire history: a steam-powered spit in 1793. He was an important early American inventor and wasn’t far behind Robert Fulton in developing the first functioning paddleboat, a version of which he tested on the Connecticut River.

That’s intriguing, but Morey already has a bridge and a school named after him, although the school is across the river in Vermont. Further, Orford isn’t that far from Hanover. I’d like to spread the geographic wealth a bit.

■We could really geek out and go for Yitang “Tom” Zhang’s 2013 proof of the twin-prime conjecture while he was a lecturer at UNH in Durham. A state-sponsored historical marker about pure mathematics would certainly put New Hampshire on the map for a certain set of folks.

One drawback: Durham already has four state historical markers.

■Harry Atwood made what may have been the first airplane flight in New Hampshire, flying from Waltham, Mass., to Concord in June 1911. He wasn’t a New Hampshire resident but, as told in an entertaining biography titled Skylark, he tried to develop a new airplane industry by building one out of wood veneer in Milford, making use of that town’s furniture manufacturing.

There aren’t many historical markers in or near Milford, and there aren’t many anywhere dealing with aviation, so this idea is pretty tempting. On the other hand, the New Hampshire connection is a little weak; the historical division might balk.

As I said, if you’ve got more ideas, give me a shout. And now, here’s that promised background.

BASIC and the time-sharing system known as DTSS were created together in 1964 by the late John Kemeny, who later was president of Dartmouth and is probably the best-known geek in New Hampshire history, and Dartmouth mathematics professor Thomas Kurtz, who is retired but still lives in Hanover. They wanted to make computing and programming more accessible to the masses.

BASIC was a very big hit, fondly remembered by computer geeks everywhere.

It had an intuitive structure – e.g., “10. PRINT ‘Hello World!’ 20. END” – that allowed doofuses like me to do simple programming, yet it proved robust enough that Bill Gates’s first piece of commercial software was an interpreter of the language. Versions were still being used several decades later.

DTSS wasn’t as significant, but by making it possible for many users to hook into the same computer at one time it allowed the creation of a long-range network that helped jumpstart the region’s technology industry. Plus, it let me play Lunar Lander in the computer room at college in Maine.

Our historical marker won’t be very near the Dartmouth buildings where BASIC was created because it has to be on a state roadway, and all the streets around the college are owned by the city. So the marker will be placed on Route 120, just inside the town line as you’re driving into Hanover from I-89. We’ll try to have some sort of celebration when it shows up, which is partly dependent on the schedule of the manufacturer used by the state.




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