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Dan Bricklin Invents VisiCalc Spreadsheet – 1979 AD

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Dan Bricklin (b. 1951), Bob Frankston (b. 1949)

After graduating with an undergraduate degree in computer science from MIT in 1973, Dan Bricklin worked at DEC for a bit, then briefly at the FasFax Corporation, which manufactured cash registers. When he decided to go back and earn a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard, he found that doing business analyses on paper was sheer drudgery. So Bricklin wrote a program on an Apple II in BASIC to automate the calculations and let him concentrate on the modeling.

Bricklin partnered with his friend Bob Frankston, who rewrote the program into the Apple II’s machine code using a cross-assembler that he also wrote, which ran on a mainframe computer at MIT. In 1979, the two incorporated as Software Arts to further develop the program. A few months later, they licensed it to a company called Personal Software (soon renamed VisiCorp), which brought the program to the market. Over the following five years, more than a million copies of VisiCalc were sold.

There had been previous numeric-modeling tools on IBM mainframe computers, but VisiCalc was the first program to combine interactivity, automatic recalculation, in-place editing, and the look of a traditional spreadsheet. These features made VisiCalc incredibly easy to learn, and its advanced features for creating and editing formulas made it possible for nonprogrammers to build complex financial models almost immediately. Companies started buying $2,000 Apple II computers to run a $100 program.

But the Apple II was the wrong computer to launch a successful business application. The computer had a display of just 25 lines of blocky 40-column text and a puny 8-bit microprocessor, and it maxed out at just 48 kibibytes of RAM. In 1981, IBM introduced the IBM PC, with a 25-by-80 display and a 16-bit microprocessor that could address a maximum of 640 kibibytes of RAM—more than enough room to hold a complex financial model. Two years later, the Lotus Development Corporation released 1-2-3®, a spreadsheet that could take advantage of what the PC had to offer. Sales of VisiCalc plummeted from $12 million in 1983 to $3 million in 1984. In April 1985, Lotus bought Software Arts and immediately pulled the VisiCalc from the market.

SEE ALSO Apple II (1977)

The user’s guide for VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet for personal computers.

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