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A Brief History of Spreadsheets

by D. J. Power
Editor, DSSResources.COM

Spreadsheets have been used by accountants for hundreds of years. Computerized or electronic spreadsheets are of much more recent origin. Information Systems oral history and some published newspaper and magazine stories celebrate Dan Bricklin as the "father" of the electronic spreadsheet. In 1978, Harvard Business School student, Daniel Bricklin, came up with the idea for an interactive visible calculator (see email from Frankston, 4/15/1999a). Bricklin and Bob Frankston then co-invented or co-created the software program VisiCalc. We can look back and recognize that VisiCalc was the first "killer" application for personal computers.


l-r Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston approx. 1980

What is a spreadsheet?

In the realm of accounting jargon a "spread sheet" or spreadsheet was and is a large sheet of paper with columns and rows that organizes data about transactions for a business person to examine. It spreads or shows all of the costs, income, taxes, and other related data on a single sheet of paper for a manager to examine when making a decision.

An electronic spreadsheet organizes information into software defined columns and rows. The data can then be "added up" by a formula to give a total or sum. The spreadsheet program summarizes information from many paper sources in one place and presents the information in a format to help a decision maker see the financial "big picture" for the company.

Beginnings and the "Tale of VisiCalc"

In 1961, Professor Richard Mattessich pioneered the development of computerized speadsheets for use in business accounting. Some historical information on the computerization of accounting spread sheets using mainframe computers is discussed on Mattessich's web page "Spreadsheet: Its First Computerization (1961-1964)". Rene Pardo and Remy Landau co-invented "LANPAR" LANguage for Programming Arrays at Random in 1969. This electronic spreadsheet type application was used for budgeting at Bell Canada, AT&T, Bell operating companies, and General Motors. They received a US patent (no. 4,398,249) for LANPAR in August 1982 after 12 years of litigation. Mattessich, Pardoe and Landau's work and that of other developers of spreadsheets on mainframe computers probably had no influence on Bricklin and Frankston. Therefore, a history of the modern era of microcomputer-based electronic spreadsheets should begin with the "Tale of VisiCalc".

The tale of VisiCalc is part myth and part fact for most of us. The story is that Dan Bricklin was preparing a spread sheet analysis for a Harvard Business School "case study" report and had two alternatives: 1) do it by hand or 2) use a clumsy time-sharing mainframe program. Bricklin thought there must be a better way. He wanted a program where people could visualize the spreadsheet as they created it. His metaphor was "an electronic blackboard and electronic chalk in a classroom."

By the fall of 1978, Bricklin had programmed the first working prototype of his concept in integer basic. The program helped users input and manipulate a matrix of five columns and 20 rows. The first version was not very "powerful" so Bricklin recruited an MIT acquaintance Bob Frankston to improve and expand the program. Bricklin calls Frankston the "co-creator" of the electronic spreadsheet. Frankston created the production code with faster speed, better arithmetic, and scrolling. He also expanded the program and "packed the code into a mere 20k of machine memory, making it both powerful and practical enough to be run on a microcomputer". For more details check Dan Bricklin's email from May 12, 1999.

During the fall of 1978, Daniel Fylstra, founding Associate Editor of Byte Magazine, joined Bricklin and Frankston in developing VisiCalc. Fylstra was also an MIT/HBS graduate. Fylstra was "marketing-oriented" and suggested that the product would be viable if it could run on an Apple micro-computer. Bricklin and Frankston formed Software Arts Corporation on January 2, 1979. In May 1979, Fylstra and his firm Personal Software (later renamed VisiCorp) began marketing "VisiCalc" with a teaser ad in Byte Magazine. The name "VisiCalc" is a compressed form of the phrase "visible calculator" (see email from Frankston, 4/15/1999b).

VisiCalc became an almost instant success and provided many business people with an incentive to purchase a personal computer or an H-P 85 or 87 calculator from Hewlett-Packard (cf., Jim Ho, 1999). About 1 million copies of the spreadsheet program were sold during VisiCalc's product lifetime. Dan Bricklin has his version of the history of Software Arts and VisiCalc on the web at www.bricklin.com/history/sai.htm. Bricklin includes early ads and reviews and pictures of the VisiCalc packaging and screenshots.

What came after VisiCalc?

The market for electronic spreadsheet software was growing rapidly in the early 1980s and VisiCalc stakeholders were slow to respond to the introduction of the IBM PC that used an Intel computer chip. Beginning in September 1983, legal conflicts between VisiCorp and Software Arts distracted the VisiCalc developers, Bricklin and Frankston. During this period, Mitch Kapor developed Lotus and his spreadsheet program quickly became the new industry spreadsheet standard.

What is Lotus 1-2-3?

Lotus 1-2-3 made it easier to use spreadsheets and it added integrated charting, plotting and database capabilities. Lotus 1-2-3 established spreadsheet software as a major data presentation package as well as a complex calculation tool. Lotus was also the first spreadsheet vendor to introduce naming cells, cell ranges and spreadsheet macros. Kapor was the VisiCalc product manager at Personal Software for about six months in 1980; he also designed and programmed Visiplot/Visitrend which he sold to Personal Software (VisiCorp)for $1 million. Part of that money along with funds from venture capitalist Ben Rosen were used to start Lotus Development Corporation in 1982. Kapor cofounded Lotus Development Corporation with Jonathan Sachs. Before he cofounded Lotus, Kapor disclosed and offered Personal Software (VisiCorp) his initial Lotus program. Supposedly VisiCorp executives declined the offer because Lotus 1-2-3's functionality was "too limited". Lotus 1-2-3 is still one of the all-time best selling application software packages in the world (see email from Mitch Kapor, 04/15/1999).

Kapor served as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Lotus from 1982 to 1986 and as a Director until 1987. In 1983, Lotus’ first year of operations, the company reported revenues of $53 Million and had a successful public offering. In 1984, Lotus tripled in revenue to $156 Million. The number of employees at Lotus grew to over a thousand by 1985. This rapid growth led to a shakeout in the spreadsheet segment of the personal computer software industry.

In 1985, Lotus Development acquired Software Arts and discontinued the VisiCalc program. A Lotus spokeperson indicated at that time that "1-2-3 and Symphony are much better products so Visicalc is no longer necessary."

What about Microsoft Excel and Bill Gates?

The next milestone was the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Excel was originally written for the 512K Apple Macintosh in 1984-1985. Excel was one of the first spreadsheets to use a graphical interface with pull down menus and a point and click capability using a mouse pointing device. The Excel spreadsheet with a graphical user interface was easier for most people to use than the command line interface of PC-DOS spreadsheet products. Many people bought Apple Macintoshes so that they could use Bill Gates' Excel spreadsheet program. There is some controversy about whether a graphical version of Microsoft Excel was released in a DOS version. Microsoft documents show the launch of Excel 2.0 for MS-DOS version 3.0 on 10/31/87.

When Microsoft launched the Windows operating system in 1987, Excel was one of the first application products released for it. When Windows finally gained wide acceptance with Version 3.0 in late 1989 Excel was Microsoft's flagship product. For nearly 3 years, Excel remained the only Windows spreadsheet program and it has only received competition from other spreadsheet products since the summer of 1992.

By the late 1980s many companies had introduced spreadsheet products. Spreadsheet products and the spreadsheet software industry were maturing. Microsoft and Bill Gates had joined the fray with the innovative Excel spreadsheet. Lotus had acquired Software Arts and the rights to VisiCalc. Jim Manzi had become CEO at Lotus in April 1986 and in July 1986 Mitch Kapor resigned as Chairman of the Board. The spreadsheet entrepreneurs were moving on ...

Legal Battles

In January of 1987, Lotus Development filed suit against Paperback Software and separately against Mosaic Software claiming they had infinged on the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet software. In a related matter, Software Arts, the developerof the original VisiCalc spreadsheet software filed a separate action against Lotus claiming that Lotus 1-2-3 was an infringement of VisiCalc. Briefly, Lotus won the legal battles, but lost the "market share war" to Microsoft. According to Russo and Nafziger (1993) "The Court granted Lotus' motion dismissing the Software Arts' action and confirming that Lotus had acquired all rights, including all claims, as part of the earlier transaction."

Most people have probably forgotten the Lotus clones, TWIN and VP Planner. Twin was designed to work like Lotus' 1-2-3 and advertising proclaimed it "offers you so much more, for so muchless." Paperback Software published a spreadsheet software product called VP Planner.

Russo and Nafziger note "Both Mosaic's TWIN and Paperback's VP Planner had most of the same features, commands, macro language, syntax, organization and sequence of menus and messages as Lotus' 1-2-3. Their visual displays were not however identical to 1-2-3 or to each other. Both TWIN and VPPlanner reorganized and placed their respective menus, sub-menus, prompts and messages on the bottom of the screen."

On June 28, 1990, Judge Keeton of the Federal District Court in Boston upheld the copyright of the Lotus 1-2-3 user interface. The Court ruled that "[t]his particular expression of a menu structure is not essential to theelectronic spreadsheet idea, nor does it merge with the somewhat less abstract idea of a menu structure for an electronic spreadsheet....the overall structure, the order of commands in each menu line, the choice of letters, words, or 'symbolic tokens' to represent each command, the presentation of these symbolic tokens on the screen, the type of menu system used, and the long prompts -- could be expressed in a great many if not literally unlimited number of ways." Lotus Dev. Corp. v. Paperback Software Int'l, 740 F.Supp. 37, 67 (D.Mass. 1990).

What about recent history?

In the late spring of 1995, IBM acquired Lotus Development and Microsoft Excel is the spreadsheet market leader.

In October 2003, Dan Bricklin is working at Interland, Inc. at interland.com and he is maintaining an interesting Web Site at URL www.bricklin.com. Dan has VisiCalc at his site. Lotus gave him permission to post a working copy of the 1981 IBM PC version of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program on his web site. You can download it and run it on a PC using MSDOS in Windows 95 or 98.

Bob Frankston is "pursuing a number of projects ..." at www.frankston.com.

According to a Red Herring Profile, Mitch Kapor "gradually traded in his position as an entrepreneur searching for the next big technology idea for the long-term advisory role of angel investor". In January, 1999, Mitch Kapor joined Accel Partners, a venture capital firm based in Palo Alto, California (URL http://www.accel.com/). Mitch's web site is Kapor Enterprises, Inc. at http://www.kei.com/.

Currently, Dan Fylstra is president of PC software vendor Frontline Systems, Inc. at www.frontsys.com. Frontline Systems Inc. is a developer of spreadsheet solver add-ins for Excel, Lotus 123 and other spreadsheet programs. A solver add-in can be used for both equation-solving (often called goalseeking) and for constrained optimization using linear programming, nonlinear programming, and integer programming methods.

Professor Richard Mattessich is retired and an emeritus Professor of Commerce and Business Administration at the University of British Columbia (email: richard.mattessich@commerce.ubc.ca).

References

"VisiCalc '79: Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston", Creative Computing, November 1984, vol. 10, p. 122, 124.

"VisiCalc Production Ends", PC Magazine, August 6, 1985, vol. 4, p. 33.

Bajarin, T. "VisiCorp was PC software industry's training ground." PC Week, August 13, 1990, v7 n32, p.117.

Browne, Christopher. "Historical Background on Spreadsheets", at URL http://www.ntlug.org/~cbbrowne/spreadsheets.html, visited March 24, 1998; also checked http://www.hex.net/~cbbrowne/spreadsheets.html 04/12/1999.

Claymon, D. "Profile: Mitch Kapor, The Lotus cofounder goes to bat for startups", Red Herring Magazine, February 1999, URL www.herring.com/mag/issue63/news-profile.html.

Frankston, R. Email message, 04/15/1999a.

Frankston, R. Email message, 04/15/1999b.

Henderson, T.B., D.F. Cobb, G.B. Cobb. Spreadheet Software from VisiCalc to 1-2-3. Indianapolis: Que Corp., 1983.

Kapor, M. Email message, 04/15/1999.

Mattessich, Richard. "Spreadsheet: Its First Computerization (1961-1964)", at URL http://www.j-walk.com/ss/history/spreadsh.htm.

Pardo, R. Email message, 08/20/2004.

Russo, J. and J. Nafziger. "Software 'Look and Feel' Protection in the 1990's", copyright 1993,check URL http://www.computerlaw.com/lookfeel.html.

Spreadsheet Newsgroup FAQ at URL www.faqs.org/faqs/spreadsheets/faq/.

Key Dates in the history of Microsoft Excel

1985 Excel 1.0 launched.

1986-88 Microsoft releases versions 1.0.6 and 1.5.

10/31/87 Launch of Excel 2.0 for MS-DOS version 3.0

1989 Launch of Excel 2.2 for Macintosh. New version includesimprovements in the calculation speed by 40% and added flexibility of different styles within asingle document.

12/9/90 Excel 3.0 is launched. This version includes Workbooks and is one of the earliest Macintoshapplications to offer Users Publish & Subscribe functionality.

4/1/92 Microsoft Releases Excel 4.0 for Windows 3.1.

11/1/92 Excel 4.0a for Windows 3.1.

12/14/93 Excel 5.0; This version includes improved Workbooks and thereplacement for Excel Macro Language with Visual Basic.

7/27/95 Excel 7.0 for Windows 95/NT.

1/15/97 Excel version 8 for Windows.

(based on http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/ps/exceldir/excelhist.html and http://support.microsoft.com)

Some Email messages

From: Jim Ho
Subject: Visicalc on HP85 & 87
To: Daniel.Power@uni.edu
Organization: DRES

Sir,
I was reading your "A Brief History of Spreadsheets" and thought you might want to include the fact that Visicalc was also available on the HP85 and 87 in the early 80's.

I found it more useful than the Apple version because it had graph plotting and statistical analysis in the same package. At the time, the HP plotter had just appeared so we could produce colour charts on paper or transparencies for presentation.

The MIS folks were most disturbed because they could see the writing on the wall. The Honeywell that was just installed for $10 million could not do what the HP85 was doing for less than $10K! I can still remember the sad look on the manager's face when I showed him the colour plots. Our summer students would spend hours watching the plotter perform its stuff. Those were fun days.

Jim.

************************

This "Brief History of Spreadsheets" was influenced by a number of comments from Christopher Browne, check http://www.hex.net/~cbbrowne/spreadsheets.html. Chris noted the "straight facts are quite accurate", but he took issuewith a few points that he felt represented "editorial opinion" on my part:

>The authors claim that Lotus 123's "A1" referencing system was "more
>intuitive" than the "R1C1" system used by VisiCalc (as well as various
>other spreadsheets notably including Microsoft's MultiPlan). Neither is
>particularly intuitive; "A1" simply happens to be shorter.

>... comments that Excel never did come out in a DOS version.
>This is somewhat misleading; early versions of Excel were clearly based
>on Microsoft's Multiplan software which came out in a whole variety of
>versions including on DOS. (And used the R1C1 referencing scheme, but
>I digress...)

>... states that: The spreadsheet instantly became easier to use than the
>archaic interface of PC-DOS products...

>The text-based user interfaces were hardly "archaic" at the time;
>they were as up to date at the time as anything could be. It is indeed
>fairly convenient to select "blocks" using a mouse; there were perfectly
>good keyboard-based ways for doing this that were and still
>are faster. (Except with Excel, where the keyboard interface appears to
>have been made deliberately arcane, but I digress...)

I've made some changes Chris. I leave it to the readers to evaluate the earlier editorial opinions. DJP

How to cite

Please cite as:

Power, D. J., "A Brief History of Spreadsheets", DSSResources.COM, World Wide Web,http://dssresources.com/history/sshistory.html, version 3.6, 08/30/2004. Photo added September 24, 2002.

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