DSS Resources

A Brief History of

version 3.0
by D. J. Power

Information Systems oral history and some published newspaper stories claim that in 1978 Daniel Bricklin, while a student at the Harvard Business School, invented the first electronic spreadsheet called VisiCalc. That claim is a bit exaggerated. For some early history on the computerization of spread sheets, see electronic spreadsheet pioneer Richard Mattessich's page "Spreadsheet: Its First Computerization (1961-1964)".

The tale of VisiCalc is part myth and part fact for most of us. Supposedly, Dan Bricklin was preparing a spreadsheet for an HBS "case study" and had two alternatives: 1) do it by hand; or 2) use a clumsy time-sharing mainframe program. Bricklin thought there must be a better way. He wanted a program where people could visualize the spreadsheet as they created it. His metaphor was "an electronic blackboard and electronic chalk in a classroom." Dan Bricklin has his version of the history of Software Arts and VisiCalc on the web at www.bricklin.com/history/sai.htm.

By the summer of 1978, Bricklin had programmed the first working version of his concept. The program would let users input a matrix of five columns and 20 rows. The first version was not very "user friendly" so Bricklin recruited an MIT acquaintance Bob Frankston to improve and expand the program. Some call Frankston the "co-inventor" of the electronic spreadsheet. Frankston expanded the program and "packed the code into a mere 20k of machine memory, making it both powerful and practical enough to be run on a microcomputer".

During the summer of 1978, Daniel Fylstra, founding Associate Editor of Byte Magazine, joined Bricklin and Frankston in developing VisiCalc. Fylstra was also an MIT/HBS graduate. Fylstra was "marketing-oriented" and suggested that the product would be viable if it could run on an Apple micro-computer. Bricklin and Frankston formed Software Arts Corporation on January 2, 1979. In May 1979, Fylstra and his firm Personal Software (later renamed VisiCorp) began marketing "VisiCalc" with a teaser ad in Byte Magazine. The name "VisiCalc" is a compressed form of the phrase "visible calculator".

VisiCalc became an almost instant success and provided many business people with an incentive to purchase a personal computer or an H-P 85 or 87 calculator from Hewlett-Packard (cf., Jim Ho, 1999). About 1 million copies of the spreadsheet program were sold during VisiCalc's product lifetime.

What is a spreadsheet?

In the realm of accounting jargon a "spread sheet" or spreadsheet was and is a large sheet of paper with columns and rows that lays everything out about transactions for a business person to examine. It spreads or shows all of the costs, income, taxes, etc. on a single sheet of paper for a manager to look at when making a decision.

An electronic spreadsheet organizes information into software defined columns and rows. The data can then be "added up" by a formula to give a total or sum. The spreadsheet program summarizes information from many paper sources in one place and presents the information in a format to help a decision maker see the financial "big picture" for the company.

What came after VisiCalc?

The market for electronic spreadsheet software was growing rapidly in the early 1980s and VisiCalc was slow to respond to the introduction of the IBM PC that used an Intel computer chip. Legal conflicts between VisiCorp and Software Arts beginning in September 1983 distracted the VisiCalc developers. During this period, Mitch Kapor developed Lotus and his spreadsheet program quickly became the new industry spreadsheet standard.

Lotus 1-2-3

Lotus 1-2-3 made spreadsheet formula referencing easier by using the shorter and what some people felt was a more intuitive "A1" referencing system (as opposed to Visicalc's R1C1 system); and it added integrated graphics capabilities. Lotus 1-2-3 established spreadsheet software as a major data presentation package as well as a complex calculation tool. Lotus was also the first spreadsheet vendor to introduce naming cells, cell ranges and spreadsheet macros. Kapor was a product manager at Personal Software, Inc. for about six months in 1981; he also designed and programmed Visiplot/Visitrend which he sold to Personal Software (VisiCorp) for $1 million. Part of that money along with funds from venture capitalist Ben Rosen were used to start Lotus Development Corporation in 1982. Kapor cofounded Lotus Development Corporation with Jonathan Sachs. Before he struck out on his own, Kapor offered to sell Personal Software (VisiCorp) his initial Lotus program. Supposedly VisiCorp executives declined the offer because Lotus 1-2-3's functionality was "too limited". Lotus 1-2-3 is still one of the all-time best selling application software packages in the world.

In 1985 Lotus acquired Software Arts and discontinued VisiCalc. A Lotus spokeperson indicated at that time that "1-2-3 and Symphony are much better products so Visicalc is no longer necessary."

Microsoft Excel

The next milestone was the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Excel was originally written for the 512K Apple Macintosh in 1984-1985. It was one of the first spreadsheets to use a graphical interface with pull down menus and a point and click capability using a mouse pointing device. The Excel spreadsheet with a graphical user interface was easier to use for most people than the command line interface of PC-DOS spreadsheet products. Many people bought Apple Macintoshes so that they could use the Excel spreadsheet. There is some controversy about whether a graphical version of Microsoft Excel was released in a DOS version. Microsoft documents show the launch of Excel 2.0 for MS-DOS version 3.0 on 10/31/87.

When Microsoft launched the Windows operating system in 1987, Excel was one of the first products to be released for it. When Windows finally gained wide acceptance with Version 3.0 in late 1989 Excel was Microsoft's flagship product. Excel remained the only Windows spreadsheet program for nearly 3 years and has only received competition from other spreadsheet products since the summer of 1992.

By the mid 1980s many companies had introduced spreadsheet products. Spreadsheet products and the spreadsheet software industry were maturing. Microsoft had joined the fray with its innovative Excel spreadsheet. Lotus had acquired Software Arts and the rights to VisiCalc. Jim Manzi had become CEO at Lotus in April 1986 and in July 1986 Mitch Kapor resigned as Chairman of the Board. The entrepreneurs were moving on ...

Legal Battles

In January of 1987, Lotus Development filed suit against Paperback Software and separately against Mosaic Software claiming they had infinged on the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet software. In a related matter, Software Arts, the developer of the original VisiCalc spreadsheet software filed a separate action against Lotus claiming that Lotus 1-2-3 was an infringement of VisiCalc. Briefly, Lotus won the legal battles, but lost the "market share war" to Microsoft. According to Russo and Nafziger (1993) "The Court granted Lotus' motion dismissing the Software Arts' action and confirming that Lotus had acquired all rights, including all claims, as part of the earlier transaction."

Most people have probably forgotten the Lotus clones, TWIN and VP Planner. Mosaic Software designed, developed and marketed a spreadsheet software product called TWIN. It was designed to work like Lotus' 1-2-3 and Mosaic's advertising proclaimed that the TWIN software product "offers you so much more, for so much less." Paperback Software published a spreadsheet software product called VP Planner.

Russo and Nafziger note "Both Mosaic's TWIN and Paperback's VP Planner had most of the same features, commands, macro language, syntax, organization and sequence of menus and messages as Lotus' 1-2-3. Their visual displays were not however identical to 1-2-3 or to each other. Both TWIN and VP Planner reorganized and placed their respective menus, sub-menus, prompts and messages on the bottom of the screen."

On June 28, 1990, Judge Keeton of the Federal District Court in Boston upheld the copyright of the Lotus 1-2-3 user interface. The Court ruled that "[t]his particular expression of a menu structure is not essential to the electronic spreadsheet idea, nor does it merge with the somewhat less abstract idea of a menu structure for an electronic spreadsheet....the overall structure, the order of commands in each menu line, the choice of letters, words, or 'symbolic tokens' to represent each command, the presentation of these symbolic tokens on the screen, the type of menu system used, and the long prompts -- could be expressed in a great many if not literally unlimited number of ways." Lotus Dev. Corp. v. Paperback Software Int'l, 740 F.Supp. 37, 67 (D.Mass. 1990).


In the late spring of 1995, IBM acquired Lotus Development and Microsoft Excel had become the spreadsheet market leader. In 1999, Dan Bricklin is working at Trellix Corporation at www.trellix.com. Bob Frankston is "pursuing a number of projects ..." at www.frankston.com. According to a Red Herring Profile, Mitch Kapor has "gradually traded in his position as an entrepreneur searching for the next big technology idea for the long-term advisory role of angel investor". Professor Richard Mattessich is an emeritus Professor of Commerce and Business Administration at the University of British Columbia (email: richard.mattessich@commerce.ubc.ca).


"VisiCalc '79: Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston", Creative Computing, November 1984, vol. 10, p. 122, 124.

"VisiCalc Production Ends", PC Magazine, August 6, 1985, vol. 4, p. 33.

Bajarin, T. "VisiCorp was PC software industry's training ground." PC Week, August 13, 1990, v7 n32, p.117.

Browne, Christopher. "Historical Background on Spreadsheets", at URL http://www.ntlug.org/~cbbrowne/spreadsheets.html, visited March 24, 1998; also checked http://www.hex.net/~cbbrowne/spreadsheets.html 04/12/1999.

Claymon, D. "Profile: Mitch Kapor, The Lotus cofounder goes to bat for startups", Red Herring Magazine, February 1999, URL http://www.j-walk.com/ss/history/spreadsh.htm

Russo, J. and J. Nafziger. "Software 'Look and Feel' Protection in the 1990's", copyright 1993, check URL http://www.computerlaw.com/lookfeel.html .

Spreadsheet Newsgroup FAQ at URL www.faqs.org/faqs/spreadsheets/faq/

Key Dates in the history of Microsoft Excel

1985 Excel 1.0 launched.

1986-88 Microsoft releases versions 1.0.6 and 1.5.

10/31/87 Launch of Excel 2.0 for MS-DOS version 3.0

1989 Launch of Excel 2.2 for Macintosh. New version includes improvements in the calculation speed by 40% and added flexibility of different styles within a single document.

12/9/90 Excel 3.0 is launched. This version includes Workbooks and is one of the earliest Macintosh applications to offer Users Publish & Subscribe functionality.

4/1/92 Microsoft Releases Excel 4.0 for Windows 3.1.

11/1/92 Excel 4.0a for Windows 3.1.

12/14/93 Excel 5.0; This version includes improved Workbooks and the replacement for Excel Macro Language with Visual Basic.

7/27/95 Excel 7.0 for Windows 95/NT.

1/15/97 Excel version 8 for Windows.

(based on http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/ps/exceldir/excelhist.html and http://support.microsoft.com)

Email messages

From: Jim Ho
Subject: Visicalc on HP85 & 87
To: Daniel.Power@uni.edu
Organization: DRES

I was reading your "A Brief History of Spreadsheets" and thought you might want to include the fact that Visicalc was also available on the HP85 and 87 in the early 80's.

I found it more useful than the Apple version because it had graph plotting and statistical analysis in the same package. At the time, the HP plotter had just appeared so we could produce colour charts on paper or transparencies for presentation.

The MIS folks were most disturbed because they could see the writing on the wall. The Honeywell that was just installed for $10 million could not do what the HP85 was doing for less than $10K! I can still remember the sad look on the manager's face when I showed him the colour plots. Our summer students would spend hours watching the plotter perform its stuff. Those were fun days.



This "Brief History of Spreadsheets" was influenced by a number of comments from Christopher Browne, check http://www.hex.net/~cbbrowne/spreadsheets.html. Chris noted the "straight facts are quite accurate", but he took issue with a few points that he felt represented "editorial opinion" on my part:

     >The authors claim that Lotus 123's "A1" referencing system was "more intuitive" than the
     >"R1C1" system used by VisiCalc (as well as various other spreadsheets notably including
     >Microsoft's MultiPlan). Neither is particularly intuitive; "A1" simply happens to be shorter.

     >... comments that Excel never did come out in a DOS version. 

     >This is somewhat misleading; early versions of Excel were clearly based on Microsoft's
     >Multiplan software which came out in a whole variety of versions including on DOS. (And
     >used the R1C1 referencing scheme, but I digress...)

     >... states that: The spreadsheet instantly became easier to use than the archaic interface of
     >PC-DOS products... 

     >The text-based user interfaces were hardly "archaic" at the time; they were as up to date
     >at the time as anything could be. It is indeed fairly convenient to select ``blocks'' using a
     >mouse; there were perfectly good keyboard-based ways for doing this that were and still
     >are faster. (Except with Excel, where the keyboard interface appears to have been made
     >deliberately arcane, but I digress...)

I've made some changes Chris. I leave it to the readers to evaluate the earlier editorial opinions. DJP

Thanks for visiting. If you have any suggestions for improvement, I'dlike to hear from you.

DSS Resources (Decision Support Systems Resources) is maintained and all its pages are copyrighted (c) 1995-1999 by D. J. Power, Professor of Information Systems and Management, College of Business Administration, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 50613-0125, Work phone: 319 273-2987, FAX: 319 273-2922, E-Mail: Daniel.Power@UNI.edu, "A Brief History of Spreadsheets" version 1.0 was published on the web 10/14/1996; it was last updated 04/12/1999 as version 3.0, see disclaimer.