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Tracking Down DOPE, the First Computer Language for Normal Humans


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Before there were dedicated computer keyboards, there were specially modified typewriters.

Before there was a BASIC programming language, there was the Dartmouth Oversimplified Programming Experiment, or DOPE.

Credit: ?Bob Fleischer/Wikimedia Commons

BASIC holds an important place in computer programming canon. Hugely popular in the 70s and 80s this programming language introduced an entire generation to computing. The reason for its widespread adoption was simple: BASIC wasn't meant for programmers, it was designed for beginners. The language meshed well with the egalitarian worldview of early home computing. If you could type then you could become a computer user, and if you could become a computer user you could become a programmer.

BASIC didn't come from nowhere. Like any language it has a family tree complete with phylums and roots. The descendants of BASIC are fairly easy to spot, Visual BASIC is about as far afield as they get. But it's ancestry is a different story that not many people know about. The language that inspired a generation does, in fact, have a predecessor called the Dartmouth Oversimplified Programming Experiment, or DOPE.

That name's probably not familiar, but that shouldn't be a surprise. I ran into it almost by chance. Once I learned of this obscure language I found myself in a pretty deep rabbit hole. At the bottom I became one of the few people to run a DOPE program in nearly 60 years. The language is strange, but undeniably shows the skeleton of BASIC starting to form.

 

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