Spreadsheet jockeys of the world, be sure to raise a glass this weekend to toast Dan Bricklin, born July 16, 1951, the co-creator of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program for personal computers.
While studying at Harvard Business School in the late 1970s, Bricklin imagined a computer program that could eliminate the tedium of paper ledgers. What if—instead of wearing down pencils and erasers—one could change a figure only once, resulting in updates to an entire ledger without hours of manual work? In 1979, in collaboration with his former classmate Bob Frankston, Bricklin launched VisiCalc—short for “visible calculator”—to do just that.
The Apple II program revolutionized the accounting industry and put personal computers in the business world, taking them out of the hobbyist’s realm. Steve Jobs credited VisiCalc with the Apple II’s success, and it became known as a “killer app”—in other words, a program so powerful consumers bought computers for the sole purpose of using it. And it’s no wonder: Bookkeeping tasks that once took hours could now be accomplished in mere minutes using VisiCalc.
In interviews, Bricklin has described the original intent of VisiCalc as mirroring the way people used paper ledgers. Later programs—Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel—built on VisiCalc’s foundation, adding formatting and other advanced database-style capabilities. Lotus 1-2-3’s rise in popularity was ultimately VisiCalc’s demise, but before all was said and done, up to one million copies of VisiCalc were sold.
In 1999, Harvard renamed its Aldrich 108 classroom “Bricklin,” recognizing the inventor’s work on VisiCalc in that very room.
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