The history of Spreadsheets
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
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.
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 lays
everything out about transactions for a business person to examine. It spreads
or shows all of the costs, income, taxes, etc. on a single sheet of paper for a
manager to look at 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 spreadsheets for use in business accounting. Some historical
information on the computerization of accounting spread sheets using mainframe
computers is discussed on Mattessich's page
"Spreadsheet: Its First
Mattessich'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 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".
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
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
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 co-founded
Lotus Development Corporation with Jonathan Sachs. Before he co-founded 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.
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
In 1985, Lotus Development
acquired Software Arts and discontinued the VisiCalc program. A Lotus
spokesperson 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.
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
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
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
What about recent history?
In the late spring of 1995, IBM acquired Lotus Development and
Microsoft Excel is the spreadsheet market leader.
In February 2000, Dan Bricklin is still working at Trellix
Corporation at www.trellix.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
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 andan emeritus
Professor of Commerce and Business Administration at the University of British Columbia (email:
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
12/9/90 Excel 3.0 is launched. This version includes Workbooks and is one of
the earliest Macintoshapplications to offer Users Publish & Subscribe
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
FAQ at URL www.faqs.org/faqs/spreadsheets/faq/.
How to citePlease cite as:
Power, D. J., "A Brief History of Spreadsheets", DSSResources.COM, World Wide
Web,http://dssresources.com/history/sshistory.html, version 3.4, 06/06/2003.
Photo added September 24, 2002.
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