Introduction to JavaScript Programming

For diving deeper into JavaScript, please read Chapter 1 of the book Head First Javascript Programming.

Javascript Applications

So far we've learned two languages: HTML and CSS. Today, we start learning the third of the three languages taught in this course: JavaScript. We will just begin talking about it, so don't worry if you don't understand everything immediately.

JavaScript is a programming language for making dynamic web pages, i.e., pages that can interact with the user and vary each time they are loaded. Although the names are similar, JavaScript is not the same language as Java, which is the programming language used in CS111 (until Spring 2014).

Simple Javascript Examples

We will begin our investigation of JavaScript by presenting a series of simple but working examples. We'll show you the code, but you should not try to completely understand it at this point. Instead, you should read it, make some guesses as to what various things might mean, and try to get the gist of what is happening without worrying about all the details. Later, after we have explained some of the notation and its meaning, we can go back to these examples and understand them more fully.

(This is a little like trying to learn a foreign language by walking around the country, listening to the words people say and observing what they do. You'll miss a lot, especially at first, but it's way more interesting than trying to start by reading a dictionary and memorizing vocabulary and syntax.)

Example 1: Hello

Here, we gather data in the form of the user's name, then we compute a response string by gluing their name onto the end of a common greeting, and finally output the result with a popup window.

We would probably never do this greeting in a real website, but someone's name could be filled into a form, added to a roster, guest list or signup sheet, emailed to someone, ...


Delete the part var name = in the first line and execute the code again. What happens? Can you explain it? What roles are name and response playing?

Example 2: Name Length

This is almost the same, but we tell them the length of their name.

Again, not useful in itself, but it's nice to know that we can find out the length of a string. For example, we can limit the length of people's posts in an application like a Facebook wall.


  1. What is the result if you enter a full name, like Harry Potter. Is the length you get what you expected?
  2. Delete the part var aName = in the first line and execute the code again. Can you explain what happens this time? Open the View > Developer > Javascript Console menu item. Anything interesting there? (Ignore the complaint abour Google code prettify.)

Example 3: Weight Conversion

Here, we ask for a number and use it in a calculation.


You probably saw a very long number as an answer. For example, the result for 130, is 59.090909090909086. It would be nice to round it off to the nearest integer. And you can. If you were to compute Math.round(59.090909090909086) you would get the result 59. Can you find a way to put the Math.round calculation in the code above, so that it gives you a rounded value in the alert window. (That's hard at this stage of your learning.)

Example 4: Homage to Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Here, we ask for the person's name, quest, and favorite color. We then modify the box below, which was created with the following HTML and CSS:

<div id="grail">
  Your name here
#grail {  
  border: 5px solid gray;
  color: gray;
  width: 50%;
Your name here

OK, here is the javascript code that will change the box above:


Add at the bottom of the given code some other style property for the box. For example, try to set the padding to "10px". If you don't see the desired effect, check the Javascript Console. If there was an error in your code, it will show here in a message in red.

Javascript and HTML

Javascript, just like CSS, is a different language from HTML. You might remember that HTML is responsible for defining the structure of a document, CSS for defining its appearance, and Javascript for defining the behavior of a page. Similarly to the way CSS interacts with HTML through inline styles, document-level styles and an external stylesheet, Javascript has the same three ways, but with a different syntax.

  1. inline Javascript - In this case, the Javascript code is given as a value to the an attribute of the HTML element. Here is an example using some things we will learn today:

    Here is the code:

    <button id="greeter1" type="button" onclick="alert('hi there!');">Greet me</button>

    Notice the JS code in the onclick attribute; there are also other attributes where JS code can be put.

  2. document-level Javascript - In this case, the Javascript code will be entered within the tag <script>. Differently from CSS, where the <style> tag could be only included in the <head> part of the document, in Javascript you can put <script> either in the <head> or anywhere inside the the <body>. A good practice is to put the code just before the closing tag for body. Here is an example:

      <button id="greeter2" type="button"">Greet me</button>
        function sayHello() {

    In the preceding, you'll see that the button has no JavaScript code at all; the code is in the script tag. However, there's a slightly more elaborate mechanism for defining and attaching the code. We'll get to these later in the course.

  3. external Javascript - This is the most common way to have Javascript communicate with HTML (it's also good for modularity and website maintenance). The entire Javascript code that we put in the script element above would go in a separate file and we simply load it using an alternative form of the script tag. Here is an example:
    <script src="myJScode.js"> </script>

We'll be using all three ways in our examples, but like with CSS, if you were creating a larger website, you should avoid inline JS. You should use mostly external JS (when shared across pages) and document-level JS.

Learning the Language

In the following sections, we'll get a first look at various facets of the language. There's more to say about all of these, but this brief tour will help you see how these different aspects of the language fit together. After all, when you learn a natural language (e.g. French or Chinese), you don't try to learn all the verbs first, before tackling any of the nouns or adjectives.


Variables are just named storage locations for a program. We used them in the examples above to store stuff that we computed (such as weight in kg) or stuff that came from the user (such as their name or height). The technical name for stuff might be data or values.

You can put a value into a variable, using an assignment statement, like these examples:

    var name = "Harry Potter";
    var weight = 150;

Note that this use of the equals sign is very different from how it is used in mathematics. In math, the equals sign (=) is an assertion that two things have the same value.

In computer science, the equals sign means:
Put the value that you see on the right of the equals sign into the storage location that is mentioned on the left of the equal sign.

Because the equals sign doesn't mean equality, we often pronounce it differently. Instead of saying weight equals 150, we say weight gets 150, short for gets assigned the value.

After a variable has been assigned a value, the value can be retrieved and used just by giving the name of the variable. For example, the following two statements retrieve the values of name and weight, perform an operation on them, and then assign the new values to two new variables called len and kg.

    var len = name.length;
    var kg = weight/2.2;

We will return to the concept of variables in future lectures.

The alert() Function

The first few examples accomplished the reporting of the response by use of the alert() function. It looked like this:


This built-in function will pop up a window that displays whatever value is supplied to the alert() function by placing it in the parentheses. In this case, it reported the value that was in the variable named response. In earlier examples, we saw alert() with an expression inside the parentheses. This expression is evaluated and then alert() reports the result.

Alerts are annoying in working code, but they are very useful when testing and developing code, because they stop the execution of the program until you acknowledge them:

Some terminology: A statement like alert("foo") is an example of a function call or function invocation, where alert is the name of a standard JavaScript function and the expression in parentheses (in this case, "foo") is the argument of (that is, input to) the function. We'll learn more about functions later, but knowing alert() is useful right away.

The console.log() Function

Very similar to alert() but much less annoying is console.log(). It's used in almost exactly the same way: you put a value (or a variable containing a value) into the parentheses, and that value gets reported. However, the difference is that alert() demands that the user acknowledge it, while console.log writes it to a hidden place that only web developers know about, and keeps going, so the user is not annoyed or delayed by the message.

The console is also where the browser writes error messages. It writes them there so that the muggles won't see them and worry about them. As of this writing, here's how you can find them:

  • Chrome: View > Developer > JavaScript Console. Or, use the keyboard shortcut: option-command-j
  • Firefox: Tools > Web Developer > Web Console. Or, use the keyboard shortcut: Control-shift-K on Winows, Command-shift-K on a Mac.
  • Safari: Develop > Show Error Console. Or, use the keyboard shortcut: option-command-C

Try it! Click the button below to execute those two console.log statements and then look for them in the console of your current browser.

We will use console.log and alert a lot as a way of getting some insight into what our code is doing and to help understand it and debug it. So it's worth becoming comfortable with finding and looking at the console.

JavaScript Comments

You should always add comments to your JavaScript code to explain its purpose. As shown in the example below, JavaScript supports two kinds of comments:

  1. A block comment starting with /* and ending with */ that may span several lines. (This is the same form as a CSS comment.)
  2. A line comment that starts with // and goes to the end of the line.
    /* (Block Comment) Pop up an alert box with a
      message making sure that you
    all are awake because at this time of day, you might be sleepy. 
    Of course, a lot of it depends on what you were doing last night...  */
    alert("Hey you there -- wake up!");

    // (Line Comment) The user must be awake if we reach this point!
    console.log("User has woken up"); 


In addition to explaining the code, we can use comments to comment out a line of code that we don't want to run (sometimes when we are debugging to find where the error lies).

Values and Expressions

JavaScript programs manipulate values. The two basic kinds of values we've seen today are:

  1. Numbers: These include both integers (e.g. 17, -42) and floating point numbers (e.g. 3.14159, -273.15).
  2. Strings: These are sequences of characters, which are written using matched pairs of the double quote character (") or the single quote character ('):
    "Harry Potter"

An expression is a JavaScript phrase that denotes a value. The simplest numeric expression is a number itself. We can also create more complex numeric expressions using the numeric operators +, -, *, / and %:

Expression Value
27 27
27 + 10 37
27 - 10 17
27 * 10 270
27 / 10 2.7
27 % 10 7

The % operator is the remainder or modulus operator. Its value is the remainder when the first number is divided by the second. Here is an example of when it can be used. An average size woman might be 64 inches tall. To find the number of feet, we divide 64 by 12 and round down, to get 5. To get the number of leftover inches, we divide 64 by 12 and take the remainder, using the % operator. That gives us the 4. The remainder operator is more useful than you might think. But don't worry about it; you can think of it as a weird kind of division.


For the most part, JavaScript follows the algebraic precedence rules that you learned in school years ago.

  • Parenthesized expressions
  • Exponents (we won't use these much)
  • Multiplication and Division (and Remainder)
  • Addition and Subtraction

JavaScript follows these rules, so your prior experience will serve as a good guide. There are a few new operators that you'll learn, such as the % or remainder operator, which has, unsurprisingly, the same precedence as division.

Try to guess what the following will evaluate to:

Strings and Quotation Marks

Literal strings can be denoted by either single or double quotes, which gives you some flexibility about how to handle awkward situations such as quotation marks inside a string:

Expression Value
"Let's play Tag!" Let's play Tag!
'Not "it"!' Not "it"!

These examples show that you can put a single quote inside double quotes and a double quote inside single quotes.

Concatenation of Strings

The main operation on strings is the concatenation operator, +:

Expression Value
"CS" + "115" + " rocks!" CS115 rocks!
"Harry" + "Cho" HarryCho

We saw this many times in the examples, as we created our response text out of literal strings, values supplied by the user, and computations from them. Concatenation is also useful for splitting strings across multiple lines. Let's say we want to display a string that represents a table. If we try to fit it in one line, it may look something like:


With all of those numbers, it can be hard to parse the information when reading the code. Unfortunately, we can't jump to the next line in the middle of a string, but we can use concatenation:

  alert("id,name,age,height(ft)," +
        "0,Amy,5,4," +
        "1,Ben,9,6," +

The parseInt() and parseFloat() Functions

We'll see that there are many situations where it's necessary to convert from a string of digits to numbers. The parseInt() and parseFloat() functions are used for this purpose. The first one is used with integer numbers and the second one with numbers with a fractional part (after the decimal point).

The function takes an (optional) second parameter that says what number base to use. We'll typically use 10 for decimal numbers.

Expression Value
parseInt("243",10) 243
parseInt("cs115",10) NaN (Not a Number)
parseInt("3.141",10) 3
parseFloat("3.141") 3.141

The second argument to parseInt is the radix or base that you want to use. It can be 10 for decimal number, 16 for hexadecimal numbers and 8 for octal numbers (base 8). It's a good idea to supply this value, to avoid JavaScript inadvertently doing the wrong thing.

You can test any of the above expressions here:

The prompt() Function

Like alert(), invoking the prompt() function pops up a small window, but (1) it also allows the user to type in a string and (2) the string entered by the user is returned as the value of invoking the prompt() function.

For example, the following statement prompts the user for a first name and then stores it in a variable.


The prompt() method is not the best way to get input in Javascript but it is OK for now. Better ways are to use HTML forms, or the jQuery library, but we can ignore it for now.

Default values

The first argument of the prompt() function is displayed above the input area of the prompt box. The prompt() function takes an optional second argument that, if supplied, is used as a default value for the input area. For example:

Using a default value makes it easier on the user when the default is right, but allows him or her to correct (override) the value when it's wrong.

Values from prompt()

The result of invoking the prompt() function is always a string, NOT a number, even if it's all digits, so it's necessary to use parseInt() or parseFloat() to convert sequences of digits to numbers. Compare the following two examples:

In this first example, we just use the + operator on the strings returned by prompt():

However, in this example, we first convert the strings into numbers (a float for the first, and an integer for the second), then apply the + operator:

Note that if we never need the strings a and b, we can take the value of prompt and immediately convert it to a number using parseInt, so the second example can be written more succinctly like this:

You have already learned a lot of JavaScript. For diving deeper, please read Chapter 1 of the book Head First Javascript Programming.

© Wellesley College Computer Science Staff. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Date Modified: Sunday, 28-Aug-2016 13:01:23 EDT