Basicode: When the basic download came over the radio

With the 8-bit revolution at the beginning of the 80s of the past century, there were very many comparable affordable home computers in a short time. Programs ran in these, which were written in various basic dialects, which in turn could be distributed on cassettes or typed out from special booklets. At the Fosdem conference, which is currently taking place in Brussels, says developer Rob Hagemans from another, but less well-known, way of transmitting programs: the radio signal.

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The idea is easy to understand. The programs are stored on the cassettes as sound signals, but these can not only be played or read, but also transmitted by radio. The Dutch broadcaster NOS began broadcasting computer programs on the radio in the early 1980s. These could then be recorded by the users with cassette recorders. A download on the radio, as Hagemans describes it. Even if nobody called it that at the time.

The developer also describes in his lecture that these transfers are not just one at the beginning "pretty terrible noise" were, but were also not really robust and worked poorly. Probably because there is simply too much noise in the radio signal compared to the cassette.

The radio technicians and hobbyists then created their own modulation scheme especially for this transmission path. It contained an error correction, start and end signals or the like. The demodulation programs were then sold again.

Basicode as the standard API for Basic

After the transmission problem was solved, there was another crucial problem – analogous to the typing programs in the magazines. The basic dialects of the individual computers from manufacturers such as Commodore, Atari, Sinclair and many others have differed in decisive details. So much so that the programs were not compatible with each other. The magazines tried to solve this by publishing posters or other aids that should enable a kind of transposition between the dialects.

In the case of the radio, this was not possible, so that the same program had to be transmitted several times for several types of computers. To solve this, those responsible have created a uniform abstraction about the basic dialects. This consisted of a large number of subroutines and thus formed a kind of API for other basic programs. These could then be broadcast on the radio, but also ran on different computers. This project got the name Basicode, The platform-specific implementations were bascoders.

The transmission of Basicode programs over the radio quickly gained additional supporters. In addition to the NOS, this system has also been used by the BBC. In the Federal Republic of Germany, the WDR Computer Club also broadcast basicode programs, but not via the radio signal, but via the audio signal from the television.

Basicode also in the GDR

In the GDR, too, basic programs were broadcast on the radio. These served primarily to teach the basics of programming and use the basic dialect of Robotron Combine KC-85 series, These programs were obviously extremely popular. Those responsible in the GDR soon had problems similar to those of their colleagues in the Netherlands before.

The GDR's own KC 85 almost never ended up in private households, but mostly in schools or research institutions. The private users who could afford it instead used the models from western production by Atari, Commodore or Sinclair. However, the programs broadcast by the GDR radio were not compatible with these computers.

According to the lecture, a listener in West Berlin made DDR Radio aware of the work on Basicode of the Dutch. This eventually led to Basicode being licensed to DDR radio, which began in 1989 to broadcast Basicode programs in the radio program. In addition to the use of cassettes, records were also pressed in the GDR using the bascoder for the computers. These were included in a book on Basicode.

Hagemans has one on his github profile Selection of basicode programs compiled and one Basicode interpreter in Javascript created with the help of which the programs can be executed in modern browsers.

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