Dan Bricklin – Inventor of the Electronic Spreadsheet

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Today startup entrepreneurs are celebrated for disrupting industries and changing the world. Marc Andreessen is famously quoted with the statement “Software is eating the world!”.

Back in the days when software was nothing but a nascent industry, Dan Bricklin both changed the world with software, disrupted not one industry but several at the same time and in fact almost single-handedly created the industry of small business software. His name nowadays isn’t exactly well known as is the software he created. The new concepts he introduced with that software however are.

Dan Bricklin is the inventor of the electronic spreadsheet most of us use on a daily basis in its Microsoft Excel incarnation. While – VisiCalc (for “visible calculator“) – the product he originally created – isn’t available anymore its legacy not only lived on but has become engrained in the way we use and think of computers. Microsoft Excel is one of the most widely used pieces of software. Not only did it have tremendous impact on how businesses are run around the world but it also isn’t too far out to say that most of the world actually runs on Excel and spreadsheets.

In my opinion, the electronic spreadsheet is one the most seminal inventions in computing technology. Perhaps it even was the key element that gave rise to the widespread adoption of personal computers in the first place. In a 1990 interview Steve Jobs said: “So if Visicalc had been written for some other computer you’d be interviewing somebody else right now.

In November 2016 Dan Bricklin gave an – unfortunately rather short – TED talk about his amazing story, how he got the idea for VisiCalc and how he went about prototyping and developing it. An intriguing aspect about his design process is that precisely by applying the constraint of a grid to put data and formulae into he opened up a vast space of what suddenly was possible with software. Embracing constraints and using them to create new opportunities is the essence of great design.

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