The First Spreadsheets Paved Way for the Internet World We Love Today

We love spreadsheets. So much so that we played an April Fools’ prank on the internet and told everyone we now support VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet for personal computers, and what’s considered the Apple II’s “killer app”. Yea, the Apple computer from the 70’s.

The point is that VisiCalc is really important. Without this “magic sheet of paper that can perform calculations and recalculations" Tiller might not be possible in the form it’s in today. Okay, so someone else might have come along and created a spreadsheet for personal computers, but VisiCalc was groundbreaking at the time.

Let’s delve into a bit of history.

An increased need for financial accounting calculations and formulas goes back to the 1400’s, and the invention of the printing press made this much easier for early accountants to manage. The invention of mechanical calculators in the 1800’s dramatically improved accounting and financial management efficiency.

Fast forward to the 1970s. Some row and column based timesharing computer applications were available, but not for personal computers or simple financial calculations. In 1979, during a presentation at Harvard Business School, Dan Bricklin realized he could create an electronic “spreadsheet” to run the same formulas and calculations the professor was writing and manually updating on a chalkboard.

He and Bob Frankston developed VisiCalc. The software allowed “the user to just solve the problem using familiar tools and concepts.” VisiCalc transformed the personal computer “from a hobby for computer enthusiasts into a serious business tool, prompting IBM to introduce the IBM PC two years later.”

A few years later Lotus 1-2-3 came on the scene and VisiCalc’s life cycle ended. The company was eventually bought by Lotus Development. However, the ingenuity of Dan and Bob opened the door for Lotus 1-2-3 and later Microsoft Excel and Quattro Pro. As spreadsheets became increasingly more user friendly their uses expanded beyond the need for efficiently calculating formulas. By 2010 more than half of spreadsheets used had no formulas and many people started using Google Sheets for the ease of sharing and cloud-based collaboration.

Thank you Dan and Bob

On Friday, we joked about this old tool, but the truth is we’re incredibly grateful for Dan and Bob’s invention. Without it speeding up the personal computer revolution, our technology and devices might not be as advanced as they are today. Their vision and ingenuity helped to accelerate all of us into the digital age.

VisiCalc co-founders Bob Frankston (left) and Dan Brickland (right).

VisiCalc co-founders Bob Frankston (left) and Dan Brickland (right).