A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge

VisiCalc screenshot

A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge
WIRED, October 24, 2014
By Steven Levy

“A generation ago, a tool unleashed the power of business modeling—and created an entrepreneurial boom.”


I learned, belatedly, that last October 17 [2014] was Spreadsheet Day, marking the 35th anniversary of VisiCalc, the Apple II program that started it all. This moved me to republish a long piece I wrote 30 years ago about the significance, as well as the dangers, of this advance. (This was so long ago that I had to define what a cursor was!) The piece first appeared in Harper’s, November 1984.
—Steven Levy


As Dan Bricklin remembers it, the idea first came to him in the spring of 1978 while he was sitting in a classroom at the Harvard Business School. It was the kind of idea—so obvious, so right— that made him immediately wonder why no one else had thought of it. And yet it was no accident that this breakthrough should have been his.


Bricklin had graduated from MIT, where—and this is crucial to the idea he would have that afternoon in 1978— he had worked intimately with computers. Before deciding to go to graduate school he had worked for two major computer companies— first for Wang, then for the Digital Equipment Corporation, for whom he helped design a word-processing program. Like most Harvard MBA candidates, he wanted to be a businessman; but more often than not, his thoughts strayed to the technological.


The question Bricklin was pondering that day in 1978 concerned how he might use what he knew about computers to help him in his finance course. This was the assignment: he and several other students had been asked to project the complicated financial implications- the shift in numbers and dollars, and the shifts resulting from these shifts- of one company’s acquisition of another.


Bricklin and his classmates would need ledger sheets, often called spreadsheets. Only by painstakingly filling in the pale green grids of the spreadsheets would they get an accurate picture of the merger and its consequences. A row on the ledger might represent an expense of a category of revenue; a column might represent a specific period of time – a day, a month, a year. Run your finger across, say, a row of figures representing mortgage payments for a certain property, and the number in each “cell” of the horizontal row would be the figure paid in the time period represented by that particular vertical column. Somewhere on the sheet the columns and rows would be tallied, and that information would be entered on even larger sheets.


The problem with ledger sheets was that if one monthly expense went up or down, everything – everything – had to be recalculated. It was a tedious task, and few people who earned their MBAs at Harvard expected to work with spreadsheets very much. Making spreadsheets, however necessary, was a dull chore best left to accountants, junior analysts, or secretaries. As for sophisticated “modeling” tasks – which, among other things, enable executives to project costs for their companies – these tasks could be done only on big mainframe computers by the data-processing people who worked for the companies Harvard MBAs managed.


Bricklin knew all this, but he also knew that spreadsheets were needed for the exercise; he wanted an easier way to do them. It occurred to him: why not create the spreadsheets on a microcomputer?


Why not design a program that would produce on a computer screen a green, glowing ledger, so that the calculations, as well as the final tabulations, would be visible to the person “crunching” the numbers?


Why not make an electronic spreadsheet, a word processor for figures?


Bricklin’s teachers at Harvard thought he was wasting his time: why would a manager want to do a spreadsheet on one of those “toy” computers? What were secretaries and accountants and the people down in DP for? But Bricklin could not be dissuaded. With a computer programmer friend from MIT named Bob Frankston, he set to work developing the first electronic spreadsheet program. It would be contained on a floppy disk and run on the then brand-new Apple personal computer. Bricklin and Frankston released VisiCalc (the name was derived from Visible Calculation) in late 1979.

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About the Author:

Steven Levy covers the gamut of tech subjects for WIRED, in print and online, and has been contributing to the magazine since its inception. His newest column, Plaintext, will soon only be available to subscribers. He has been writing about technology for more than 30 years, writing columns for Rolling Stone and Macworld, leading technology coverage for Newsweek, and cocreating a tech publication, Backchannel, on Medium. (Backchannel was integrated into WIRED in 2017.) He has written seven books, including Hackers, Crypto, Artificial Life, Insanely Great (a history of the Macintosh), and, most recently, In the Plex, the definitive story of Google. He attended Temple University and has a master’s degree in literature from Penn State. He works from the New York office.