Dan Bricklin & VisiCalc #history

Excerpt from The PC Pioneers

On this day in 1951 Dan Bricklin was born. He was to become the VisiCalc spreadsheet inventor.

Bricklin was an early software visionary, another individual who transited through the hallowed turf of MIT.  In 1969/70 he met Bob Frankston where they both worked on the MULTICS project, that influential early time-sharing system.  Initially on leaving they worked in different parts of the developing PC business, but not before they had identified a desire to start a small business together.


Douglas Engelbart of ARC had only recently demonstrated his mouse at Harvard and maybe as a result of this Bricklin found himself considering equipping his TI calculator with a mouse that could move between cells of a financial model.

They formed Software Arts Inc and evolved the basic approach for a spreadsheet they renamed as VisiCalc (from Visible Calculator). Its great attraction was that anyone, even without programming experience, could grasp the processes speedily and be writing and operating programs’ within seconds – never for a moment realising that programming was what they were doing!

VisiCalc_screenThe term spreadsheet already existed.  The Dictionary for Accountants by Eric L Kohler first published in 1952 described a spreadsheet as a matrix of columns and rows of numbers completed manually.

So perhaps it was not surprising that when Bricklin outlined his concept to various professors he received limited interest or assistance.  However one of them did introduce him to Dan Fylstra, a student in the year ahead of him

When we consider how spreadsheets proliferated it is natural to ask why then did the VisiCalc designers never patent it.  But in the late 1970s in the USA it was felt that software consisted merely of symbols and algorithms and that these were matters of fact and/or laws of nature, and as such it was not considered appropriate material for patenting.

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