January 19, 2011, 5:18 PM — Dan Bricklin first came up with the idea of an electronic spreadsheet while he was at Harvard Business School in 1978. He later joined forces with Bob Frankston and Dan Fylstra to publish the now-legendary VisiCalc in 1979. Bricklin, currently president of software developer Software Garden Inc., recently spoke with Computerworld about the intent of VisiCalc and how the spreadsheet has evolved.
How did you originally intend the spreadsheet to be used? VisiCalc was supposed to reflect how people used paper. It wasn't about columns and rows and databases. The goal was to create a two-dimensional tool where letters, words and numbers could have independent calculations.
How did it evolve? As Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel evolved, the spreadsheet took on tedious things such as the formatting of numbers. You could type in 11 and it would show up as 11.00. Lotus added labels and text that could continue into the cell to the right and improved the overall look with pie charts [and other illustrative tools]. While VisiCalc let you import data from other places, [later] spreadsheet programs let you bring data in and out and created a GUI that showed grids and let you play with fonts. Lotus and Microsoft also let you write your own functions. Then Microsoft added pivot tables that let you pull in data from ODBC and other places.
What did this do to the spreadsheet's status in business? Spreadsheets became a hub in the middle of everything -- a corporate workhorse. When we first designed the spreadsheet, we were dealing with machines -- like an Apple II -- that didn't have the space to handle all the data. We could envision the spreadsheet being more powerful, but the underlying computer couldn't do that at that time. We had to adopt the attitude that we were willing to put up with some restrictions [such as the number of rows] in order to interface with the rest of the computing world.