Microsoft’s History with BASIC (Altair 8800, TRS-80 Color Computer)

A Brief History of Small Basic

Today, we have a guest blogger, Philip Conrod! He is sharing with us an excerpt from their book for kids, Beginning Microsoft Small Basic by Philip Conrod and Lou Tylee. This section is available as part of Chapter 1 of “Beginning Microsoft Small Basic”. You can find their books and other materials at the Computer Science For Kids web site. Thanks to Philip for sharing. Please enjoy!



… First I thought it would be interesting for you to see just where the Small Basic language fits in the history of some other computer languages and, in particular, with Microsoft products. 

Most programming in the early days of programming was done in such cryptic languages by engineers and mathematicians. Two professors at Dartmouth College wanted to explain programming to “normal” people and developed the BASIC (Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Code) language to help in that endeavor. BASIC was meant to be a simple language with just a few keywords to allow a little math and a little printing.

In the later 1960’s, timeshare computing, where a user could sit at a terminal and interact with the computer, became popular. The primary language used in these interactive sessions was BASIC. The Dartmouth BASIC was not sufficient for the many applications being developed, so many extensions and improvements were made in the BASIC language. Many of the first computer games were written on timeshare terminals using BASIC. The first complete game I wrote was on an HP-1000 Timeshare Basic system using a TTY-33 Terminal. Here is one such terminal:

HP-1000 Timeshare Basic system

These terminals allowed direct interaction with a mini or mainframe computer. Your computer output was on paper and programs could be saved on a punched paper tape.

In the summer of 1969, Bill Gates and Paul Allen began writing BASIC programs at Lakeside High School in Seattle using this same kind of teletype terminal. Bill continued programming and started little business ventures until January 1975 when this magazine appeared on the stands:


On the cover is an Altair 8800 computer. It must have been really expensive – note the ‘Save Over $1000’ line. About all the computer could do was flash some lights according to a program written by the user. But, it was the first home computer. Bill Gates and Paul Allen saw the potential. They developed a BASIC language for the Altair computer and marketed it through their new company – Microsoft. Yes, the first product sold by Microsoft was the BASIC computer language. It sold for $350 and was distributed on a cassette tape.

Then, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, it seems there were computers everywhere with names like Radio Shack TRS-80, Commodore 64, Texas Instruments 99/4A, Atari 400, Coleco Adam, Timex Sinclair and the IBM PC-Jr. Stores like Sears, JC Penneys and even K Mart sold computers. One thing all these machines had in common was that they all included applications programmed in some version of Microsoft’s BASIC. Each computer had its own fans and its own magazines. Computer users would wait each month for the next issue of a magazine with BASIC programs you could type into your computer and try at home. My computer of choice at that time was the TRS-80 Color Computer:

TRS-80 Color Computer

Like Microsoft’s first product, our BIBLEBYTES programs were distributed on audio cassette tapes.

This was a fun and exciting time for the beginning programmer, but the fun times ended with the introduction of the IBM-PC in the early 1980’s. Bigger and faster computers brought forth bigger languages and more complicated  development environments. These new languages were expensive to purchase and difficult for the beginning programmer to grasp.   That brings us to Small Basic, which I would call a close relative of the early, original BASIC language. Small Basic was created by Vijaye Raji, a developer at Microsoft, in 2008 in response to an article written in September 2006 by David Brin called, “Why Johnny can’t code”.  It would be best to let Vijaye tell the story of how Small Basic was born. To read more about the history of Small Basic, see Vijaye’s blog post, dated October 23, 2008, and entitled “Hello World”.


The development of Small Basic was a several-years-long project by Vijaye Raj to rekindle the exciting days when just about anyone could sit down at a computer and write a simple program using the BASIC language. Those of you who wrote programs on those old “toy” computers will recognize the simplicity of the Small Basic language and the ease of its use. And you will also notice Small Basic is a great environment for writing and testing code, something missing in the early 1980’s. … For those of you new to programming, I hope you can feel the excitement we old timers once had. For the old timers, I hope you rekindle your programming skills with this new product.



Excerpt © Copyright 2012-2013 By Kidware Software LLC  All Rights Reserved.  Philip Conrod & Lou Tylee have co-authored dozens of books and tutorials for beginning Microsoft Basic, Small Basic, Visual Basic, and Visual C# developers of all ages for over 25 years.


Comments (6)

  1. Brings back old memories.

  2. Nico Boey says:

    wow, it's like seeing a picture of someone you knew very well and has died a long time ago; my first EVER programming keystrokes were on a TRS-80, as a kid back in the late seventies…

  3. anonymouscommenter says:

    " One thing all these machines had in common was that they were all programmed in some version of Microsoft’s BASIC."

    This sentence confuses me.  Are you trying to imply that these computers' operating systems were built using  BASIC or saying that BASIC was present when the computer turned on?  Regarding the Coleco ADAM, BASIC was stored on a digital data pack aka cassette.  It had a word processing program built into the ROM aka start-up.

  4. Justin, good point. I'll update it. Thanks!

  5. I updated the copyright info at the end.