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The VisiCalc Dawn

By Michael Castelluccio
June 1, 2019
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The germinal idea for one of the most revolutionary applications for the personal computer began with a distracted student watching his professor working on a blackboard filling in the columns and rows of a table of cells for a business case. Each mistake in a cell required the erasure of all the adjacent cells that depended on the mistaken entry.

 

Annoyed, the student imagined a magical blackboard. One that would allow you to erase a number, write in a new number, and have everything alongside it recalculated automatically.

 

The year was 1978, and several other fortunate circumstances converged to allow Dan Bricklin, the student, to create his electronic blackboard and what has come to be credited as the first electronic spreadsheet. The program was called VisiCalc, short for the visible calculator.

 

ALL THE RIGHT PIECES

 

Bricklin was enrolled in Harvard Business School (HBS) at the time, but he brought with him a unique background. He had been a computing major at MIT, and, unlike most of his Harvard classmates at the time, he knew how to code.

 

But programs need hardware capable of handling their calls and routines. Fortunately, Apple had recently created the Apple II with an 8-bit processor that could handle what Bricklin’s visible calculator would demand. And Bricklin was able to borrow one of these new PCs over a weekend during which he wrote the original set of directions in Apple Integer Basic.

 

Two more MIT/HBS colleagues soon joined Bricklin’s team. Bob Frankston was a more experienced programmer than Bricklin, and he rewrote the prototype in an assembler code version that added speed, improved accuracy, and scrolling. Frankston was also able to make the prototype more compact so that it would fit the memory limits of the Apple II, a key for the future success of both VisiCalc and Apple.

 

And finally, Daniel Fylstra (MIT 1975) joined Bricklin and Frankston. Fylstra was a founding associate editor of Byte magazine, and he signed on to help on the business side. The group formed the Software Arts Corporation in January 1979, and the initial ad campaign in Byte was aimed squarely at anyone who owned or had access to a PC.

 

Before the end of production of VisiCalc seven years later, the program had sold about a million copies. That same year, Microsoft launched Excel, and today its spreadsheet software is on more than a billion computers around the world.

 

THE FIRST “KILLER APP”

 

There’s a lot of folklore in the narratives around the birth of the electronic spreadsheet, much of it recirculated each year online on October 17. For those of you who don’t celebrate it, that’s International Spreadsheet Day, marking the release of VisiCalc in 1979. There’s also the controversy over VisiCalc’s place in history, which prompted Bricklin to write his own interesting take on the question: “Was VisiCalc the first spreadsheet?”

 

As a matter of history, a number of innovators in the 1960s produced working electronic spreadsheets on mainframe computers. In his paper, Bricklin explains that he and Frankston didn’t invent the word “spreadsheet.” “The special thing about VisiCalc was not that it was the first row/column tabulation program. It was the ‘personal computerness’ of VisiCalc that seems to be what most people find important. It, along with word processing (one of the product classes from which it was derived), helped define the ‘personal productivity’ segment.”

 

He then elaborates on six qualities of the personal “computerness” of his and Frankston’s creation.

 

  1. It was interactive in a WYSIWYG way. You point to change a value, you can scroll, and formulas are stored in cells referencing other cells—all merged into a natural program-by-example interface.
  2. The UI (user interface) and design have stayed with us.
  3. It ran on an affordable, personal machine, so it was accessible to all. The previous tools ran on time-sharing systems that cost more than $1,000 a month.
  4. It was successfully marketed to the right people.
  5. It was a catalyst to the personal computer industry. Steve Jobs called it the app that propelled the success of Apple computers.
  6. Most subsequent spreadsheets are directly descended from it. That includes SuperCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, and, after those, Bill Gates’s and Paul Allen’s Excel.

 

In his book, The Third Apple, former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée describes his first impression of VisiCalc. “VisiCalc offered itself to me on the screen: a sheet of ruled paper with rows of columns…. So VisiCalc was the thing I had dreamed of making ten years earlier…. That was the day I realized that you didn’t have to be a programmer any more to use a computer. VisiCalc was a phenomenal revolution…. Approximations, trial and error, simulations—VisiCalc is an intellectual modelling clay. It lets you program without knowing it.”

 

Michael Castelluccio has been the Technology Editor for Strategic Finance for 24 years. His SF TECHNOTES blog is in its 21st year. You can contact Mike at mcastelluccio@imanet.org.


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