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, where he taught statistics and numerical analysis.

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 an LGP-30 computer available to undergraduate students in mathematics and physics, Kurtz and Kemeny began to oversee the design and development of a time-sharing system. 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 implemented a time-sharing system with several terminals (typewriter-like devices) connected to a single computer, whose operating system spent a fixed amount of time on one user's program before dedicating itself to another user's program and later returning to the first user's program. When one program was suspended, the operating system would write it to a big drum acting as a backing store. All of this is simply expected nowadays but back then it was an advanced and completely innovative concept.[7] Contrary 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 was 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 creation and editing utilities that are most often needed and implemented by the majority of users employed in everyday computing jobs. 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 attacked the introduction of the “machine age” soon after the computer system was installed, but resistance among faculty members was short-lived” [8] The essential motivation behind 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 its practice, its powers, and its limitations must also be extended 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]


As part of the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System, Kemeny and Kurtz created the BASIC programming language. 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 it would help students 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 it made BASIC available and free to anyone wanting to use it. The name for the language originated from Kurtz’s wish to have a simple acronym that meant something as well. Kurtz states that, “We wanted a word that 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]

The theme that BASIC was 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 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 a Harvard dormitory, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, created 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.[citation needed]


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 DARSIMCO soon became obsolete when the language FORTAN manifested itself. In 1962 Kemeny and a Dartmouth undergraduate, Sidney Marshall, created the language DOPE, Dartmouth Oversimplified Programming Experiment, which was a direct predecessor of BASIC. DOPE itself was little used, and Kurtz preferred trying to implement successful languages such as FORTRAN and ALGOL. Kurtz's experience with Dartmouth ALGOL 30 for the LGP-30 convinced hime that devising subsets of these languages was not quite practical, and this led him to adopt Kemeny’s notion of creating a new language entirely.


Although BASIC was widely regarded as a success, many computing professionals thought it was a poor choice for larger and more complicated programs. Larger programs became confusing and messy when they used the “GO TO” statement to jump from one line of a program to another. A further criticism of the original language was that it is was unstructured, which made it difficult to split programs into separate parts to improve readability. BASIC not being structured also hindered the ability to debug and modify parts of the code, and this limited its use by larger companies. Hence it largely remained a language used for only smaller programs.[14]

True BASIC[edit]


In 1983, in response to a proliferation of "Street BASICs," a group of graduating Dartmouth students persuaded Kemeny and Kurtz to offer the Dartmouth version of the language as a commercial product. The first offering of their company, True Basic, Inc., was based on Dartmouth BASIC 7, which featured modern programming constructs such as “IF..THEN..ELSE, DO..LOOP and EXIT DO”.[15] The company described its product as “Simple. Elegant. Powerful. True BASIC.“ Upon Kemeny's advice, True BASIC was not limited to a single OS or computer system. “Today versions of True BASIC are available for DOS, Mac OS, Windows, Unix, and Linux systems”.[16] When Kurtz retired from Dartmouth College in 1993, he continued to develop and maintain 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]