Before Google Sheets, there was Excel. Before Excel, there was Lotus 1-2-3. Before Lotus 1-2-3, there was VisiCalc. And before VisiCalc, there was pen and paper. VisiCalc -- a combination of the words visual and calculator -- was the trailblazer for not only spreadsheet software, but interactive computing in general -- prompting Steve Jobs to declare that "spreadsheets propelled the industry forward." The story of VisiCalc is interesting, but what is remarkable is the story of the man behind it, Dan Bricklin. Bricklin's journey to developing VisiCalc is characterized by product design, chance, and curiosity, and may prove valuable inspiration for those of us interested in building.
Dan Bricklin is an older gentleman, tall, with a white beard. On the day of his TEDx talk, he wears a plaid shirt tucked into blue jeans, and tennis shoes. He is funny, but also intelligent -- in a curious, tinkering sort of way. Bricklin begins by recounting being 15; through luck and perseverance he was able to attain computer time, at a day and age when computers were generally inaccessible to high school students. Bricklin is accepted to MIT, which he pays for by working on Multics systems. Multics is a technical project that would later go on to influence nearly all operating systems including Linux, Microsoft Windows, and macOS. Following his college graduation, Bricklin would work on computing typesetting with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), and then on microprocessor-based electronic cash registers for the fast-food industry. Though these experiences may seem sporadic, Bricklin suggests they established the bedrock for his future work with VisiCalc.
Eventually, Bricklin would start-up a business with a friend from his Multics days. Fully aware of their limited knowledge of business, Bricklin applies for and is accepted to complete an MBA at Harvard. At Harvard, Bricklin is drilled with case studies, many of which require a long string of tedious calculations that had to be completed by hand. An issue quickly arose. If a single calculation was wrong, the final results were then also incorrect, and due to the time it took to complete the calculations by hand, a single error would make a day's work meaningless. This frustrates Bricklin, who responds by inventing interactive, gridded, formula-based software to better complete his case-study homework. That software was later named VisiCalc, and the rest is history!
The historical takeaway is the spreadsheet's invaluable role in making computers useful to everyday folks, while encouraging personal computers in the hands of business owners. On a more personal level however, Bircklin rallies the crowd stating, "take your unique backgrounds, skills and needs and build prototypes to discover and work out the key problems, and through that, change the world." As demonstrated with VisiCalc, those problems may be as simple as a frustrating set of homework assignments, and the solution may impact an entire industry.
Mahdi Al-Husseini is the volunteer organizer of TEDxDouglasville, a senior at Georgia Tech studying biomedical engineering and public policy, and a U.S. Army cadet. TEDxDouglasville 2017 is scheduled for Saturday, March 25, 2017 at Douglas County High School. Tickets are $10 and include a Chick-fil-A lunch. Visit www.tedxdouglasville.com for more information.