The First Computerized Spreadsheet

VisiCalc: Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston

Apple II
Courtesy of The Computer History Museum

"Any product that pays for itself in two weeks is a surefire winner." That’s what Dan Bricklin, one of the inventors of the first computer spreadsheet.

VisiCalc was released to the public in 1979. It ran on an Apple II computer. Most early microprocessor computers had been supported by BASIC and a few games, but VisiCalc introduced a new level in application software. It was considered a fourth generation software program.

Before this, companies were investing time and money creating financial projections with manually calculated spreadsheets. Changing a single number meant recalculating every single cell on the sheet. VisiCalc allowed them to change any cell and the entire sheet would be automatically recalculated.

"VisiCalc took 20 hours of work for some people and turned it out in 15 minutes and let them become much more creative,” Bricklin said.

The History of VisiCalc 

Bricklin and Bob Frankston invented VisiCalc. Bricklin was studying for his Master of Business Administration degree at Harvard Business School when he joined up with Frankston to help him write the programming for his new electronic spreadsheet. The two started their own company, Software Arts Inc., to develop their product.

"I don't know how to answer what it was like because early Apple machines had so few tools,” Frankston said about programming VisiCalc for the Apple II. “We just had to keep debugging by isolating a problem, looking at memory in the limited debugging – which was weaker than the DOS DEBUG and had no symbols – then patch and retry and then re-program, download and try again and again..." 

An Apple II version was ready by the fall of 1979. The team started writing versions for the Tandy TRS-80, the Commodore PET and the Atari 800. By October, VisiCalc was a fast seller on the shelves of computer stores at $100. 

In November 1981, Bricklin received the Grace Murray Hopper Award from the Association for Computing Machinery in honor of his innovation.

VisiCalc was soon sold to Lotus Development Corporation where it was developed into the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet for the PC by 1983. Bricklin never received a patent for VisiCalc because software programs were not eligible for patents by the Supreme Court until after 1981. "I'm not rich because I invented VisiCalc,” Bricklin said, “but I feel that I've made a change in the world. That's a satisfaction money can't buy." 

"Patents? Disappointed? Don't think of it that way," Bob Frankston said. "Software patents weren't feasible then so we chose not to risk $10,000." 

More on Spreadsheets 

The DIF format was developed in 1980, allowing spreadsheet data to be shared and imported into other programs such as word processors. This made spreadsheet data more portable. 

SuperCalc was introduced in 1980, the first spreadsheet for the popular micro OS called CP/M.

The popular Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet was introduced in 1983. Mitch Kapor founded Lotus and used his previous programming experience with VisiCalc to create 1-2-3. 

Excel and Quattro Pro spreadsheets were introduced in 1987, offering a more graphical interface.

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Bellis, Mary. "The First Computerized Spreadsheet." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 26). The First Computerized Spreadsheet. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The First Computerized Spreadsheet." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 9, 2023).