The next time you use Excel to analyze data on the fly, remember the “father” of the spreadsheet: Dan Bricklin.
On May 11, 1979, during the West Coast Computer Faire, the Harvard MBA candidate and his co-creator, programmer Robert Frankston, gave the first public demonstration of a new electronic spreadsheet software called VisiCalc. Journalists were intrigued—suddenly microcomputers could perform the computations once possible only on a mainframe. People (and, more importantly, businesses) began taking microcomputers seriously. Thanks to VisiCalc, the “First Killer App of the Computer Era,” microcomputers were no longer a plaything.
From humble beginnings
Bricklin has thoroughly documented the development of VisiCalc on his website, www.bricklin.com. As an MBA student, he pondered how useful it would be for his TI Business Analyst calculator to have a visual display. He began tinkering around with developing such a tool on a borrowed Apple II. He and Frankston began working together to write the code, and they tapped friend Dan Fylstra, owner of Personal Software, to publish the final product. (Fylstra coined the name “VisiCalc,” for “visible calculator,” after the friends rejected “Calcu-ledger” and “Calcu-paper.”)
Bricklin’s first real application of VisiCalc was in a Harvard class assignment—an analysis of the “Pepsi Challenge” marketing campaign. He used the software to test multiple scenarios and make multi-year projections. The only things he couldn’t do were save or print his work (those capabilities came later), so he had to hand-copy VisiCalc’s output for class.
VisiCalc went on sale in November 1979 for $100. Eventually it was bundled with the Apple II, propelling Apple’s success and dominating the market until the 1983 introduction of Lotus 1-2-3. Still, VisiCalc was first … making it the “software tail” that “wagged (and sold) the personal computer dog,” to paraphrase PC pioneer Ben Rosen.
Tech Time Warp is a weekly feature that looks back at interesting moments and milestones in tech history.