Meet Dan Bricklin. The Inventor of the Electronic Spreadsheet

If I asked how many people reading this article have used an electronic spreadsheet like Microsoft's Excel, a lot of you would put your hand up. But if I asked how many have run a business using handwritten spreadsheets, then I'd get a much smaller show of hands. But for hundreds of years, that's exactly how it was done.

That was until in 1978, an MIT graduate, Dan Bricklin, began working on an idea that would eventually become known as VisiCalc. Just one year later, VisiCalc was already running on the then revolutionary Apple computers. When six years later the Wall Street Journal published a story that assumed everyone reading it knew what VisiCalc was, and even suggested that they themselves were using it, Bricklin began to get the feeling that maybe, just maybe, his invention was changing the world. Today, VisiCalc is recognised as being directly responsible for getting personal computers out of people's living rooms and onto office desks.


But how did it all come about?


Bricklin's story began back in 1966. He was 16-years-old and had just started to learn computer programming. Very few students had access to computers in those days, and it was down to luck and perseverance that he managed to secure any computer time at all. While studying at MIT, Bricklin worked on the Multics Project, a groundbreaking interactive timesharing system that spawned both the Unix and Linux operating systems as coincidental offshoots. Bricklin worked on Multics versions of interpreted languages, that is, languages used by people to carry out calculations in noncomputer fields.


After graduating from MIT, Bricklin got a job with the Digital Equipment Corporation, where he worked on software that would eventually replace newspaper reporter's typewriters with computer terminals. Bricklin would write the software then go out to teach reporters how to use it, and get their feedback. This was proper fieldwork and far removed from what he saw back in the lab at MIT. Shortly after he was made project leader for developing DEC's new line of word processors, another new area of technology. The main problem, Bricklin still recalls, was how to build an interface that was both comfortable and efficient for noncomputer users.


From DEC, Bricklin worked for a while at a company that made electronic cash registers for the fast-food industry. But Bricklin had recently begun to harbour a secret ambition to start a company with his friend Bob Frankston, who he had met back in MIT. So, in 1977, Bricklin enrolled in the MBA program at Harvard Business School, and it was here that alongside his business administration studies, he began to work on the idea that would become VisiCalc.


In those days, most programmers worked on mainframes and built things like bill-paying systems, inventory systems, and payroll systems. But Bricklin already had experience with interactive word processing and personal computation. Instead of thinking about punch cards and paper printouts, he imagined what he called a 'magic blackboard.' Or in other words, he was picturing a word processor with numbers, not words.


Slowly, the idea of a grid formed itself in Bricklin's mind. A grid with ABC along the top and numbers down the side. This meant that if a user saw say, B7 in a formula, they would know exactly where that was on the screen. And if they had to type in the formula themselves, they'd know exactly where to put it. Restricting users to this grid solved a lot of problems regarding the noncomputer users. But it also opened up a lot of new capabilities, like having multiple ranges of cells, which meant that users could put any value or formula into any cell.


Bricklin decided to get his friend Bob Frankston involved in the process, and together they built the first VisiCalc prototype. Bricklin continued to figure out exactly how the program was supposed to behave, and he wrote reference cards as documentation, and to ensure that the interface he was designing could be easily explained to noncomputer users. Meanwhile, Frankston worked in the attic of his rented apartment in Arlington, Massachusets. Frankston purchased time on MIT's Multics System to write computer code which he would download onto a borrowed Apple computer and then test in his attic.


Eventually, VisiCalc was ready to be shown to the public. Bricklin's father printed a reference card to use as marketing material, and in June of 1979, in a small booth at the vast National Computer Conference in New York City, VisiCalc was announced to the world. Reactions were less than excited. The New York Times wrote a supposedly humorous article proclaiming that 'machines at the conference perform what seem like religious rites...,” and ended the piece with a slightly sarcastic, “All hail VisiCalc!”


That was the first and last mention VisiCalc had in the popular press for over two years. Most people just didn't get what Bricklin's invention was about. But some did. Orders for the software began to trickle in, and the first shipments were dispatched in October of 1979. Of course, there's a lot more to Bricklin's story. Like for instance, Harvard put up a plaque in his former classroom to commemorate what happened there. But when asked about it Bricklin merely shrugged and told reporters that, “... it's just a reminder that anyone can take a unique background, their skills and needs, to build prototypes to discover what works and what doesn't, and then through all that, change the world.”


So, next time you're slaving away over a hot keyboard, rushing to get those end of month figures typed and stored and sent off to your boss or the department head, just pause for a while and think how you would be doing it 100 years ago. Or even fifty years ago. And then say a silent thank you to Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston. Without whom, you'd probably never get out of the office on time.





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