John G. Kemeny Biography (1926-1992)


Born in Budapest, Hungary, Kemeny emigrated to the United States in 1940. Hereceived his B.S. in mathematics from Princeton University and during World War II worked in the computing center of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos,New Mexico, assisting other pioneers in computer technology such as John vonNeumann. After the war, Kemeny worked on his doctorate at Princeton University, helping Albert Einstein (1879-1955) with research work. With the advent ofthe astonishing breakthroughs in computer technology during the early 1950s,numerous computer systems were being installed across the United States. Kemeny realized such a large number of computers created a need to teach computing in an educational environment and believed that an understanding of computers would be as necessary in life as being able to read and write. In the early 1960s, Kemeny became chairman of the department of mathematics at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire. In 1962, Thomas E. Kurtz (1928- ), Dartmouth's director of computing, approached Kemeny with the idea of installing a time-share computer system at Dartmouth College. In a time-sharing system, many users are connected to one central computer, which divides processing time between users while giving them the illusion of private access. Kemeny was familiarwith time sharing from research he had done earlier in his career at MIT, and gave his full approval to the project. The equipment arrived at Dartmouth in February of 1964, and Kemeny and Kurtz began the long process of installingthe system and writing programs to run on it. Although several computer languages for writing programs had been introduced during the 1950s, including FORTRAN, COBOL and LISP, Kemeny found them to be complicated and designed morefor use by scientists, engineers and other technical experts. Kemeny convinced Kurtz that they needed a completely new language, simple enough for beginners to learn quickly, yet flexible enough to handle all different kinds of applications. In a few short months they developed the Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, more commonly known as BASIC. On May 1, 1964, the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System along with BASIC language became operational. Students were first taught BASIC programming at Dartmouth beginning in 1964. Those using the new language were able to write programs after two hoursof classroom lectures, a far cry from the many weeks or months needed to master other languages in use at the time. By June of 1968, more than 80 percentof the undergraduates at Dartmouth could write BASIC programs. Although in later years Kemeny and Kurtz wrote more powerful versions of BASIC, they always tried to maintain their original design goal of keeping BASIC simple enoughfor students and beginners. Although still popular in high schools and elementary schools, use of BASIC among most programmers had declined over the years in favor of other languages such as C, LISP and Pascal. But in the early 1990s, Microsoft Corporation introduced a product called Visual Basic which revitalized the BASIC programming language. By the late 1990s, Visual Basic wasone of the most popular programming languages for creating computer programsfor Microsoft Windows.

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