Who Invented the Computer? Dan Bricklin and VisiCalc

Who Invented the Computer? This is the forty-fifth installment in our ongoing series.

Ever since Luca Pacioli invented modern accounting methods in 1494, businesses have recorded important information such as inventory, payrolls, payments, and profits and losses by writing them down in large leatherbound books called ledgers. For centuries this was an arduous and time-consuming task that required steady and clear penmanship and great attention to detail.

That process was forever and wonderfully simplified in 1978 when 27-year-old Harvard MBA student Dan Bricklin found himself unable to keep up with a professor’s lecture and instead let his mind wander.  

The class dealt with Production Planning for businesses, a process involving large matrices spanning several motorized blackboards filled with columns and rows of hand-written numbers to create “what-if” scenarios. Students would come to class with their completed homework written on paper matrices.

Unfortunately, an error in one of their homework cells would result in having to quickly calculate and record new numbers in all following cells. This outcome would often cause students to simply give up and try to follow the lecture. Which is what happened to Bricklin.

Teen programmer

As Bricklin’s mind began to wander in class, he subconsciously drifted back to his lifelong interest in computer programming. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Bricklin developed an interest in computers during high school and, through constant badgering, begging, hard work, and pure luck, he was able to get computer time around the city. By age 15, he had learned to program.

As a student at MIT, he worked on the Multics project, an early interactive time-sharing operating system. His first job after school was with the Digital Equipment Corporation, where he worked on the new field of computerized typesetting that led to newspaper writers switching from typewriters to computer terminals. Eventually, wanting to start his own business, Bricklin returned to school to pursue an MBA.

The magic blackboard

Sitting in the classroom at Harvard and feeling frustrated at being unable to keep up with the professor’s lesson, Bricklin began thinking how cool it would be if he had a blackboard whereon he could change one number, and all of the other numbers would automatically change. As he later described it, the gizmo would function “like word processing with numbers.”

In his daydream, Bricklin imagined his calculator with a heads-up display to easily enter numbers to obtain the correct result. By time class was over, Bricklin was determined to make his idea a reality. Working on a video terminal connected to Harvard’s time-sharing system, he tried various formats for laying out numbers, eventually settling on a grid system similar to those used in physical maps.

By inserting alphabetical letters across the top of the grid and numbers along the side, and programming a handful of simple underlying formulas into the cells, Bricklin developed a crude prototype that functioned in much the same manner that would be familiar to spreadsheet users today.

Software Arts Company

It was time to bring in a professional, and Bricklin turned to his good friend Bob Frankston, a software engineer at MIT. Together, the two men founded Software Arts Company (SAC). Their goal was to perfect Bricklin’s nascent program — now called “VisiCalc” — and get it to run on a personal computer.

At the time, personal computers were still a very new thing. The Altair 8800 was a mere three years old and there were less than 200,000 personal computers operating in the entire world.

The duo had three possible personal computer models to choose from for their program: the TRS 80, the Commodore PET, and the newest model on the market, the Apple II from Apple Computers. They settled on the Apple II since that was the only machine they could borrow from a friend.    

Working nights and weekends with time purchased on MIT’s computer system, Frankson got to work writing code on a terminal with a dot matrix printer attached. Test versions were downloaded to the Apple II via a phone line with an acoustic coupler.

In late 1978, VisiCalc underwent its first public trial.  Bricklin’s class was working on a case scenario of a fictional business when he easily changed a few numbers in a couple cells. The program worked as expected with numbers changing easily and correctly. The professor and entire class were amazed. VisiCalc had become the first spreadsheet computer program.  

A dazzling debut

Six months later SAC exhibited VisiCalc at the National Computer Conference in Manhattan. It was a hit. The New York Times ran an article about the conference with the headline “All hail VisiCalc.” By October 1979, SAC was shipping copies of VisiCalc in three-ring binders that included a 5.25-inch floppy disk, a user’s manual and a reference card for $99.95.

Since the program was designed to run on the Apple II, VisiCalc customers were also buying the $2,000 machines. Even Apple’s main rival, the Tandy Corporation, was using VisiCalc — on an Apple II.

Sales of VisiCalc are considered one of the main reasons Apple Computers made it through some lean times until they could come out with new iterations of the Apple II. Other companies were soon jumping into the spreadsheet market with their own programs, but VisiCalc continued to hold on to the top spot in the computer spreadsheet market. All told, more than 1 million copies of the VisiCalc program were sold.

Unfortunately, for SAC, by 1984 a new player had joined the industry: The Lotus Development Corporation jumped into the spreadsheet game with Lotus 1-2-3. While VisiCalc had been designed for the Apple II, the new program was more compatible with the IBM computers that were increasingly being placed in business offices. By 1985, VisiCalc was on its way to obsolescence.

Lotus 1-2-3 would soon lose its crown as the spreadsheet king when Microsoft released its Excel program. While Excel was extremely powerful and came with impressive graphing tools and pivot tables, it still operated in the same manner of the original VisiCalc program.

Footnote to history

VisiCalc helped people see the spreadsheet as a tool not just for large companies, but for everyone who would ever need to calculate long lists of numbers. In commemoration of the program, Harvard Business School placed a plaque in the classroom where Bricklin first ran it, calling VisiCalc the “Killer App of the Information Age.”

In a later magazine interview, Apple godfather Steve Jobs claimed that VisiCalc was the program that propelled the computer industry forward and drove the success of Apple more than any other single event. As he told the interviewer, “If VisiCalc had been written for some other computer, you’d be interviewing somebody else right now.”

Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Calvin Harper

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.