I Want to Buy a Visicalc

Or what spreadsheets meant to me and millions of others

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All things great and small

The pendulum swings between individual choice and centralized control.

Among my many treasured friends and colleagues, one, Saundby, told me a story about the first computer spreadsheet.

When Saundby was still wet behind the ears, he used to hang out at The Byte Shop, learning all the ins and outs of the new computers which Paul Terrell had on the shelves. He respected Paul's customers, and occassionally helped clinch the sale, so Paul didn't mind the kid hanging around.

One day Paul got an interesting new piece of software in. In 1978 Dan Bricklin, a Harvard student, changed the world of business by creating the first spreadsheet to run on a personal computer. He called it Visicalc. And when it hit The Byte Shop, it became an instant best seller. Business people from around the Bay Area would walk into Paul's shop and ask to buy a Visicalc. They didn't ask to buy an Altair computer or an IMSAI computer or a Commodore or an Apple computer. They didn't even ask to buy a spreadsheet. All they knew was that their friend and fellow business associate had bought a Visicalc and they wanted one too.

What was the lure? Well, to be quite frank, money. A spreadsheet provides a simple, powerful electronic tool that allowed business people to actually see what was happening with their money real time. They didn't have to wait on ther accountants or the banks and they didn't have to wait for month-end reports. They could run the numbers for themselves whenever they needed to.

And the beauty of the thing was that for the first time it became possible to ask "What if?" For example, if two business opportunities are available to you, but you have to choose between them, how do you choose? With a spreadsheet, the business person can build a financial model, plug the numbers in for both deals, and see which looks the most promising. It wasn't a crystal ball, but it was the next best thing.

I came on the scene a little later than Saundby. Visicalc was slowly being replaced by a more powerful product called Lotus 1-2-3, which was eventually out-competed by Microsoft Excel. I did use Visicalc, but my expertise was with Lotus. Like the business people, I, too developed a few "What if" scenarios while I was writing my training classes. Probably the most dramatic thing I learned was how to save $200,000 by spending about $40 a month. If I'd been able to teach more people that secret, maybe the home mortgage crisis wouldn't have been so bad. But that's a future article.

To see one of my original works, download this Lotus manual. I'll warn you, I wrote this before the days of WYSIWYG, so its not pretty. But what a difference it made to our many offices and their ability to manage their business and serve their customers!

Lotus 1-2-3 version 2.4, Part 1.

Lotus 1-2-3 version 2.4, Part 2.

Lotus 1-2-3 version 2.4, Part 3.