Let’s Backtrack: Visicalc turned 40 in November 2018


I said in a backchannel email that I had been writing mostly on facebook while I was away. It was suggested I post some it here, so this is the first. (Finally, a useful facebook feature: you can download your entirety of posts and comments to look at them.)


November 1978 marked one of the most important moments in the history of personal computers: the invention of Visicalc, the first “killer app”, a process, tool or purpose that justifies spending large amounts of money to accomplish a single task. The telephone’s killer app was communication over distance, and the internal combustion engine was speed (trains and automobiles). Huge computers were built for military purposes such as bombing and codebreaking (Bletchley Park’s computer breaking the Nazi’s Enigma Code), but it was Visicalc that justified owning a personal computer.

In the fall of 1978, Dan Bricklin was attending Harvard’s MBA program after graduating from MIT. One of his accounting classes involved case studies on business accounting, a process which involves large sheets of paper with many amounts and calculations and is prone to errors – one mistake can ruin and entire sheet. I know, I’ve done this stuff the hard way.

Bricklin had the idea to create an electronic calculator which allowed him to change one value, and all other values connected to it would change automatically. Errors would be eliminated, changes could be made quickly, and different scenarios could be tried. He envisioned the world’s first spreadsheet program.

In November and December 1978, Bricklin, together with fellow MIT graduate and friend Bob Frankston, began work on the Visible Calculator, or Visicalc. They first presented it in May 1979, and Apple so realized its importance that they delayed the release of the Apple III until Visicalc was ready for sale.  (I consider the invention date more important than the release date.)

The Apple II was only a hobbyist’s computer in 1978, but by 1980 was on business desktops everywhere. Visicalc only ran on the Apple II, meaning you had to own an Apple II to use Visicalc: thus, the killer app. Steve Jobs was once quoted as saying, “If VisiCalc had been developed for another computer, you’d be interviewing somebody else.” Visicalc was later ported to many computers, but it was that two year period (1979-1981) that made Apple.

Lotus 1-2-3 rendered Visicalc obsolete by 1985, and Software Arts (distributors of Visicalc) soon went out of business. Excel and other spreadsheets (e.g. VP Planner, Supercalc, Multiplan, Works, et al) later superceded Lotus 1-2-3, but all retain the same basic format: columns named by letter, rows with numbers, and cells which could hold text, values or formulae. The spreadsheet hasn’t changed in forty years because Bricklin got it right the first time.


In 1996, Robert Cringely recorded the PBS documentary, “Triumph of the Nerds”. This is an excerpt on the effect of Visicalc on the industry.  Visicalc made computers mainstream and ubiquitous, but it also made the 1980s “me decade” and corporate raiding possible. In many ways, it is also responsble for much of the economic mess of the last forty years.

Bricklin and Frankston regained the rights to Visicalc and have made it freely available to download and test. (And to use, though it’s so primitive that many free spreadsheets work better and are easier to work with.) But it’s interesting to see a piece of history, where the real boom in computing started – not with the Apple II or IBM PC, but with the spreadsheet, the killer app.  Here’s a short interview with Bricklin and Frankston.

Comments

  1. says

    In the fall of 1978, Dan Bricklin was attending Harvard’s MBA program after graduating from MIT. One of his accounting classes involved case studies on business accounting, a process which involves large sheets of paper with many amounts and calculations and is prone to errors – one mistake can ruin and entire sheet. I know, I’ve done this stuff the hard way.

    There’s a story I’ve heard– it might even have been in Bricklin’s own Bricklin on Technology book– where he was demonstrating an early version of VisiCalc to one of his fellow students, and the guy just looked at him and said, “you’ve just done a whole week of my work in a couple of seconds”. Many people don’t realise just how revolutionary a product it was.

    • says

      On the PBS series “Revenge of the Nerds”, Bricklin tells of demonstrating Visicalc at a computer fair to a businessman. He claims the man’s hands started shaking, pulled out his credit card and didn’t care how much he had to pay.

  2. bobmunck says

    In 1966-1968 at Brown University, we implemented a system called Hypertext for creating non-linear documents like those described in the 1940s paper As We MayThink. One of its features was the ability to create rectangular tables of numbers with some of the entries being the result of arithmetic expressions involving other table entries — basically a spreadsheet. Changing an entry with the lightpen would cause all values in the table to be recalculated.
     
    Hypertext ran on an IBM/360 mainframe and 2250 graphic display costing about $25 million in today’s dollars. Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to any of us to implement it on personal computers years later when they became powerful enough to support it, although the basics of hypertexts have become ubiquitous on PCs in recent years. I have heard that the Hypertext feature was used to establish “prior art” in a legal dispute between two early spreadsheet companies.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    According to some Apple user magazine I read in the ’80s, Apple had the opportunity to buy VisiCalc before it went on the market, but declined because Wozniak saw no point in it when he already had a multi-function calculator.

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