Spreadsheets simplify calculations and basic database work.


During a lecture at Harvard Business School, in 1978, student Dan Bricklin watched his professor struggle to erase and rewrite cells in a blackboard-based ledger. Thinking about the newly popular Apple II computer Bricklin thought of a better way, a program that allowed users to enter and manipulate numbers.

Bricklin partnered with software engineer Bob Frankston and formed a company on Jan. 2, 1979, to create VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet.

Early reviews raved about the new software:

“Today, virtually the only user of personal computers who is satisfied with the state of the software is the hobbyist. But for the professional, the home computer user, the small businessman, and the educator, there is precious little software available that is practical, useful, universal, and reliable…

Enter Visicalc. What is about to come on the market is a new concept in software that could well go a long way toward fulfilling those aforementioned needs of professionals and alleviating their frustrations… Though hard to describe in words, Visicalc comes alive visually. In minutes, people who have never used a computer are writing and using programs… You simply write on this so-called electronic blackboard what you would like it to do – and it does it.”

Morgan Stanley Electronics Letter, by Benjamin M. Rosen

A Killer App

VisiCalc ran exclusively on the Apple II for years. It was wildly popular. Businesses would buy Apple computers solely to run VisiCalc. Eventually, competing spreadsheet Lotus 1-2-3 addressed many shortcomings of VisiCalc. Sales declined to negligible numbers. Lotus purchased VisiCalc in 1985 and immediately discontinued the program. Subsequently, Microsoft released Excel and, over time, destroyed Lotus 1-2-3 sales, eventually buying the company and shuttering it, much like they did to Bricklin.

“There have been two real explosions that have propelled the industry forward. The first one really happened in 1977, and it was the spreadsheet. I remember when Dan Fylstra, who ran the company that marketed the first spreadsheet, walked into my office at Apple one day and pulled out this disk from his vest pocket and said, ‘I have this incredible new program – I call it a Visual Calculator,’ and it became VisiCalc. And that’s what really drove – propelled – the Apple II to the success it achieved.”

Steve Jobs