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The Virtues of Sharing

Children using timesharing terminals

The BASIC computer language was designed for programming beginners.

The Virtues of Sharing

Big companies could afford big mainframes. But what about users with aspirations bigger than their budgets?

Users who can’t individually buy a mainframe can share one. Because most tasks are small, and computers work faster than users can respond, the machine can juggle many jobs—giving users the illusion of having the computer’s undivided attention and providing seemingly real-time access.

CompuServe Pajama Party advertisement

CompuServe began with commercial timesharing in 1969. Some employees objected to introducing “dumbed-down” home-user services starting around 1979, but that became a major CompuServe market.

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The Origin of Timesharing

MIT unveiled its Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) in 1961. Initiated by AI pioneer John McCarthy, it operated until 1973 and may have been the first timesharing system available to a large community. It also laid the groundwork for MIT’s Project MAC.

Launched in 1963 with Defense Department support, Project MAC envisioned timesharing available to anyone, anywhere—like telephone or electrical utilities. Project MAC later joined with GE and Bell Labs to develop a prototype commercial timesharing utility called Multics.

By 1985, about 80 Multics systems operated. Several remained in use until 2000. Video (Animation): Animation excerpt from vintage video explaining timesharing concept.

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GE 235 computer brochure

Dartmouth created the Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS) in 1963. GE provided the hardware: a 235 mainframe linked to users through a smaller GE Datanet 30 computer.

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IBM internal newsletter

By 1965, IBM saw that timesharing using its competitors’ computers was becoming popular. The company rushed to enter the timesharing market “next year.”

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Basic Timesharing

“Be easy for beginners to use.” That was the first of eight design principles behind the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System (DTSS) unveiled in 1963.

Created for both savvy users and non-techies, DTSS used the BASIC programming language, which later was widely available on varied computers, from “game-playing” microcomputers to mainframes.

Tom Kurtz and John Kemeny

Some programmers have disparaged Kurtz and Kemeny’s BASIC programming language. However, many modern “dialects,” such as Visual Basic, are still widely used by professional programmers for some applications.

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General Electric timesharing at Dartmouth advertisement

By 1968, Dartmouth timesharing was running on its second generation of GE computers. GE got an early start in timesharing because IBM declined to support the initial development of Dartmouth’s system.

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BASIC textbook, "Now YOU Can Program …"

GE promoted Dartmouth’s BASIC programming language to help sell its computers.

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Datapoint 3300 video terminal

In the late 1960s, video terminals with on-screen editing capability began to replace electromechanical terminals for timesharing systems.

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