Harvard homework assignment led to creation of first computerized spreadsheet


By Brett Peruzzi, Associate Editor


Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, creators of VisiCalc, the first computerized spreadsheet
Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, creators of VisiCalc, the first computerized spreadsheet

The computerized spreadsheet is likely the business world’s most important invention that came out of a homework assignment.


From class assignment to commercial product

Dan Bricklin was a young computer programmer attending Harvard Business School in Cambridge in 1978. He had an assignment for his advertising class that involved producing financial projections for various scenarios for a marketing budget. He and Bob Frankston, a friend from his undergrad days at MIT, wrote a computer program to do the calculations. Bricklin scored high on the assignment, which astounded his professor and classmates. A year later, the program, called VisiCalc, was released commercially for the Apple II computer.

VisiCalc was the “killer app” of its time and one of the programs that propelled the personal computer to become a critical tool in the business world. Before then, it was considered more of a hobby for computer fanatics. For the first year of its existence, VisiCalc was only available for the Apple II. Sales of that computer increased dramatically, many of them to small businesses who wanted to use VisiCalc. Even if they had other computer systems, people were willing to pay $2000 for an Apple II to run a program that cost $100.

Lack of patent made it harder to protect

A sample VisiCalc spreadsheet
A sample VisiCalc spreadsheet

Two years later, the first IBM PC was released, and a version of VisiCalc for that platform soon followed and sold 300,000 copies. VisiCalc would go on to sell about one million copies in total during its history, its price eventually rising to $250. One of the factors that reportedly led to VisiCalc’s demise was that it was not patented.

In 1979, when VisiCalc was shown to the public for the first time,” Bricklin explained on his personal website, www.bricklin.com, “patents for software inventions were infrequently granted. Programs were thought to be mere mathematical algorithms, and mathematical algorithms, as laws of nature, were not patentable.”

But that doesn’t mean Bricklin and others at the company that sold VisiCalc commercially, Personal Software, later VisiCorp, didn’t try to protect its most valuable asset. They engaged a patent attorney to explore the option of patenting the program.

The patent attorney explained to us the difficulty of obtaining a patent on software,” said Bricklin, “and estimated a 10% chance of success, even using various techniques for hiding the fact that it was really software (such as proposing it as a machine). Given such advice, and the costs involved, we decided not to pursue a patent. Copyright and trademark protection were used and vigorously pursued.”

A major competitor emerges

The likely fatal blow to VisiCalc came in 1983 with the introduction of a competing spreadsheet program from Lotus Development Corporation called Lotus 1-2-3. Mitch Kapor, a former VisiCorp programmer, made 1-2-3 take better advantage of the IBM PC’s memory, display and performance capabilities. He also made it compatible with VisiCalc to allow users to easily switch to using 1-2-3 and use their existing spreadsheets. Sales of VisiCalc slowed, and by 1985, VisiCorp was bankrupt. Lotus acquired VisiCalc and stopped selling it so 1-2-3 could continue its rise unimpeded. 

In 1999, 21 years after Bricklin presented VisiCalc to his class, Harvard Business School renamed the room where it happened. It is now known as the Dan Bricklin Classroom in his honor, with a plaque that says, “Forever changed how people use computers in business.” 



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