Thomas E. Kurtz

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Thomas E. Kurtz
Born Thomas Eugene Kurtz
(1928-02-22) February 22, 1928 (age 86)
Oak Park, Illinois, U.S.
Education Princeton University, Knox College (Mathematics)
Occupation Computer Scientist, Mathematician, Statistician
Awards 1974 AFIPS Pioneer Award
1991 IEEE Computer Science Pioneer Award

Thomas E. Kurtz (Thomas Eugene Kurtz; born February 22, 1928) was a Dartmouth professor of mathematics and a computer scientist, who along with his colleague John G. Kemeny.[1] set in motion the then revolutionary concept of making computers as freely available to college students as library books were, by implementing the concept of Time-Sharing at Dartmouth College. In his mission to allow non-expert users to interact with the computer, he co-developed the BASIC programming language (Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) during 1963 to 1964.

A native of Oak Park Illinois, United States, Kurtz graduated from Knox College in 1950, and was awarded a Ph.D. degree from Princeton University in 1956, where his advisor was John Tukey, and joined the Mathematics Department of Dartmouth College that same year.

In 1983, Kurtz and Kemeny co-founded a company called True BASIC, Inc. to market True BASIC, an updated version of the language.

Kurtz has also served as Council Chairman and Trustee of EDUCOM, as well as Trustee and Chairman of NERComP, and on the Pierce Panel of the President's Scientific Advisory Committee. Kurtz also served on the steering committees for the CONDUIT project and the CCUC conferences on instructional computing. In 1991, the Computer Society honored Kurtz with the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award[2] and in 1994 he was inducted as a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery.[3]

Early life and Education[edit]

In 1951, Kurtz' first experience with computing came at the Summer Session of the Institute for Numerical Analysis at University of California, Los Angeles. His interests have included numerical analysis, statistics, and computer science ever since. He graduated in 1950 when he obtained his bachelors degree majoring in mathematics and in 1956, at the age of 28, he went on to acquire his PhD from Princeton University. His thesis was on a problem of multiple comparisons in mathematical statistics.[4] Kurtz composed his first computer program in 1951 while working with computers at UCLA in the institute of numerical analysis. He performed this feat just after finishing grad school and one year into his tuition at Princeton University.


In 1963 to 1964, Kurtz and Kemeny developed the first version of the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System, a time-sharing system for university use, and the BASIC language.

From 1966 to 1975, Kurtz served as Director of the Kiewit Computation Center at Dartmouth,[5] and from 1975 to 1978, Director of the Office of Academic Computing. From 1980 to 1988 Kurtz was Director of the Computer and Information Systems program at Dartmouth, a ground-breaking multidisciplinary graduate program to develop IS leaders for industry. Subsequently, Kurtz returned to teaching full-time as a Professor of Mathematics, with an emphasis on statistics and computer science.

Dartmouth College


It was not until around 1962 that Kurtz and Kemeny finally formed the team that would go on to revolutionize the accessibility of programming. Following the runaway success of making the “LGP -30” computer available to the students participating in Honours degrees in Mathematics and Physics:Thomas E. Kurtz and John G. Kemeny began to cooperatively oversee the design and development of a time-sharing system for the university to use. The idea to use time-sharing to reach all Dartmouth students originated from John McCarthy who, around 1961, advised, "you guys ought to do time-sharing." [6] McCarthy and his colleagues at MIT had invented time-sharing and it was a way of putting several terminal - typewriter like devices on the same box and then having the operating system conduct its operations in such a way that it would spend a finite amount of time on one users program and then dedicate itself to another users program for a separate unit of time and so forth. When one program was executed fully, the operating system would write it off into a big drum backing store. All of this is simply expected nowadays but back then it was an advanced and completely innovative concept.[7] Contradictory to the old system of batch processing, which only allowed technicians to get near a computer, time sharing permitted students to have direct unadulterated access to the machine.[8] Dartmouth had the largest open-stack library in the world at that time in any university of this type. The concept of open-stack computing? “Thatʼs one of the few ideas that I had that Kemeny didnʼt have” joked Kurtz. On May 1, 1964, the system, named Dartmouth Time-Sharing System, or DTSS for short, formerly implemented to run on a GE-200 series computer (GE-200 series was a family of small mainframe computers of the 1960s, manufactured by General Electric) began operations and remained in use until the end of 1999! [9] All considering, DTSS may be depicted as a general purpose system with a limited scope; that is, it offered various different types of user services, while, concurrently, placing strict limitations on the size of the computing job that could be handled. However, the experiment verified the prediction that most computing jobs, especially in an educational environment, are indeed small. It also provided the type of program formulation and editing utilities that are most often needed and implemented by the majority of users employed in everyday computing jobs. The DTSS proved successful enough to enable 80 percent of all Dartmouth students, and a significant percentage of the faculty, to learn how to program a computer” [10] “Because of the time-sharing system, Dartmouth students, though largely nontechnical, had far more experience in the 1960s with computers than students elsewhere. Kemeny and Kurtz did not want to train computer scientists; their idea was rather to put the computer at the disposal of large numbers of generalists. A few Dartmouth academics attached the introduction of the “machine age” soon after the computer system was installed, but resistance among faculty members was short-lived” [8] The essential goal of motivating the development of DTSS was the idea that knowledge about computers and computing must become a vital part of liberal education. Science and engineering students undoubtedly need to know about computing in order to carry out their work. But Kurtz and Kemeny felt exposure to computing and it’s practice, it’s powers and limitations must also be expanded to non-science students, many of whom will later be in crucial decision-making roles in business, industry, and government. The Administration and the Board of Trustees of Dartmouth were fully supportive as they, too, realised and accepted the goal of “universal” computer training for liberal arts students.[10]


So it was the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System that the pair created which eventually gave birth to the conception of BASIC. Given the fact that Kurtz and John G. Kemeny were staticians before becoming Computer Scientists In 1963 Kurtz wrote Basic Statistics alongside his partner which ended up being a success after which, one year later, they together wrote the first version of BASIC. The very first BASIC program ran on May 1, 1964 at 4 a.m. and neither Kemeny nor Kurtz thought of this as a start to something grand. They merely hoped that it would help the students to learn something about the computers they were using. The pair made certain that their invention was dispersed to the public straight away and made no real money from it. Dartmouth College copyrighted BASIC however they made it simultaneously available and free to anyone who aspired to use it. In correlation with the pair’s desire to make a programming language for the basic computer user the name for the language also originated from Kurtz’s wish to have a simple acronym the meant something as well. Kurtz states that: “We wanted a word the was simple but not simple-minded, and BASIC was that one.”[8] BASIC along with the books published on it earned a lot of positive feedback, for example: “This second edition of Basic Programming gives a thorough description of BASIC, which is useful not only for the beginner, but also for the more experienced programmer.”; “ My overall evaluation of BASIC programming is that it is ideal for the individual who wishes to program with a minimum of effort and of equal value for group or classroom instruction.” [11] Even at this time, the motif that BASIC is for the average computer user is stressed by Kurtz. In an open letter he reiterates upon past statements that BASIC was invented to give students a simple programming language that was easy to learn as all the current languages of the time were dedicated to professionals. He then went on to say that BASIC was for people who did not want to dedicate their lives to programming.[12] The repetition of this idea by Kurtz accentuates that even through all of his success the language he wrote would remain to be implemented for the masses and not just specialists. BASIC standards were created in the 1980s for the EMCA, and ANSI with their versions being released in 1986 and 1987 respectively.[13] BASIC popularity skyrocketed in 1975 after a pair of youngsters in Harvard dormitory, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, managed to compose a version of BASIC that was viable on one of the earliest personal computers. Gates and Allen’s version became the most prominent iterations of BASIC. Oddly enough, Kemeny and Kurtz were completely oblivious to this project until much later; during the mid 1970s the two Dartmouth inventors were in fact unaware of the fact that personal computers were even being developed.


The road to BASIC itself was a long one. Kemeny and Kurtz had forged DARSIMCO – Dartmouth Simplified Code – Dartmouth’s inaugural attempt at making a computing language in 1956 however soon after DARSIMCO became obsolete when the language FORTAN manifested itself. In 1962 Kemeny supported by a Dartmouth student called Sidney Marshall, formed the language DOPE, Dartmouth Oversimplified Programming Experiment, which was a direct predecessor of BASIC. DOPE however was a failure and at one point in time Kurtz preferred trying to modify the pre-existing and successful languages of FORTRAN and ALGOL. Kurtz quickly concluded that devising subsets of these languages was not quite possible and this led him to adopt Kemeny’s notion of creating a new language entirely.


Although regarded widely as a success there are still a few people who feel BASIC is poor in the technical sense, especially whilst making larger and more complex programs. Larger programs would become confusing and messy when the “GO TO” function, which instructed the computer to jump from one section of a program to another, was used. A further critic of the language is that it is not structured, this made it impossible to split programs in several unique parts which improves readability. BASIC not being structured also hindered the ability to debug and modify parts of the code which limited its use by larger companies meaning it has stayed as a language used for only smaller programs.[14]

True BASIC[edit]


The production of these “Street BASICs” led to the duo designing and creating [True BASIC] which popularized new language forms that are now taken for granted in most modern programming languages: “IF..THEN..ELSE, DO..LOOP and EXIT DO” [15] Eventually in 1983 a group of graduating Dartmouth students persuaded Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz to offer their programming language as a commercial product hence the production of “True Basic Inc.” Housing the knowledge that operating systems are always changing and through the advice of Kemeny, it was never limited to one OS or computer system. “Today versions of True BASIC are available for DOS, Mac OS, Windows, Unix, and Linux systems”.[16] Thomas E Kurtz continued to work as a professor at Dartmouth College until he retired in 1993, however, although he no longer works at the University he still develops and maintains True Basic with his company “True BASIC, Inc”, showing he still strives to enhance the world of computing even at such an old age. With its simplicity, True BASIC is still expanding with more and more users, it’s also said to be Kurtz’s favoured version of BASIC as it was constructed exactly the way he and Kemeny had envisioned. In fact the Dartmouth BASIC 7 which was used for Academic purposes was actually the first version of True BASIC, on their own website it is described as “Simple. Elegant. Powerful. True BASIC. “


  1. ^ "World of Computer Science on Thomas Eugene Kurtz". Retrieved 2010-01-15. 
  2. ^ "Computer Pioneer Award". Retrieved 2010-01-15. 
  3. ^ "ACM Fellows Award". Retrieved 2010-01-15. 
  4. ^ Computer Science awards
  5. ^ Dartmouth College
  6. ^ Computer Pioneers
  7. ^ Physics Clark University
  8. ^ a b c Robert Slater, 1987. Portraits in silicone., MIT Press
  9. ^ History of Modern Computing, BASIC
  10. ^ a b Science Mag article on Dartmouth Time-Sharing System, 11 October 1968
  11. ^ John G. Kemeny, Thomas E. Kurtz, and Anthony Feliu, 1972. BOOK AND FILM REVIEWS: Highly Recommended: Basic Programming, The Physics Teacher. February, 10, pg 103
  12. ^ CIS Alumni Page fore Thomas E Kurtz
  13. ^ Computer Science for Kids Website
  14. ^ Robert Slater, 1987. Portraits in silicone., MIT Press
  15. ^ i-Programmer Website
  16. ^ True Basic Website

External links[edit]