Like many computer pioneers, Dan Bricklin grew frustrated with the
way things were. In 1978 he invented VisiCalc, a simple way to do
complex spreadsheets, and the world beat a path to not only his door,
but also the door of Apple Computer.
Bricklin was born in 1951 in Philadelphia and grew up in this city
where the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator (ENIAC) had
introduced the world to the computer age. In 1969 he enrolled in the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to study mathematics, but
in his junior year he switched majors from math to computer science.
While at MIT he worked in the Laboratory for Computer Science, where
he helped design an on-line calculator and wrote programming to
implement the APL language. There he became friends with Bob
Frankston, a man who would be very influential in Dan Bricklin's
Following his graduation from MIT in 1973, Dan Bricklin worked for
Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) where he wrote programming for an
interface between newswire services and typesetters and wrote
one-fourth of DEC's first word processing program, WPS-8. In 1976 he
left DEC and worked for a short time for FasFax, a cash register
manufacturing company. In 1977 he returned to school to begin work on
a masters degree in business administration at the Harvard Business
It was as a business student that Bricklin's frustration began to
show. Having worked on programming for the on-line calculator and the
word processing program for DEC, he understood how useful a computer
could be in business, but his classroom experience also showed him
their limitations and inefficiencies.
At that time, students had to learn to perform calculations for
business spread-sheets by hand; inserting new figures for everything
from labor costs to shipping, then manually recalculating the effect
that each change had on the bottom line. The process was tedious and
every new calculation was an opportunity for mistakes that could lead
to serious business errors.
Out of his frustration at the task and his knowledge that there had
to be a better way to do it, Bricklin began to create a software
program that would do for numbers what word processing did for words
-- enable the user to insert and delete elements and see an immediate
change in the results.
To discourage him from wasting his time working on a software program
that wouldn't sell, one of his professors referred him to Dan
Flystra, an alumni of Harvard who owned Personal Software, a software
publishing company. Although the two men did meet, they didn't talk
about Bricklin's idea. Bricklin joined up with Bob Frankston, his
friend from MIT and together they began to turn Bricklin's
rudimentary idea into a commercially viable product. In 1978 Bricklin
was working on the functional design and documentation, Frankston was
writing the programming, and Personal Software began handling the
marketing. In 1979, Bricklin and Frankston started their own company,
Software Arts, Inc.
They bought computer time on a time-share basis, with Frankston
writing the program at night when the rates were cheaper and Bricklin
continuing to work on his MBA during the day. Many decisions had to
be made about the capability of the final product, but the driving
force was to keep the program simple. The final version was 25K long.
After discussing several names for the new program, they chose
VisiCalc. Although Bricklin was able to amaze his professors with the
output of VisiCalc, selling it to Apple or Atari proved difficult.
In June 1979, Bricklin received his MBA from Harvard and in July
Software Arts secured a loan and hired its first employee. By the
fall of 1979 a version of VisiCalc was ready for the Apple II and
they started writing versions for the Tandy TRS-80, Commodore PET,
and Atari 800. In October of that year, VisiCalc hit the shelves of
computer stores, selling for $100.
VisiCalc had a major impact in two ways. The first was to allow
businesses to redistribute costs and revenues on a trial basis to see
how the changes would affect the bottom line -- and get the results
immediately. It reduced the cost of doing spread sheets by 80 percent
and let small businesses make decisions based on the kind of
sophisticated financial projections previously available to only
large companies with mainframe or mini computers. The second impact
of VisiCalc was on the computer industry itself. For the fledgling
Apple Computer company, it was a tremendous boost because the first
version of VisiCalc was written to run on the Apple II, and people
bought the computer just so they could run VisiCalc. The reputation
of VisiCalc as a serious business application did much to establish
the PC as a legitimate business computer.
By 1981, VisiCalc was available for Hewlett-Packard computers and the
new IBM PC and sales were hitting 30,000 units per month. In November
1981, Bricklin was rewarded for his innovative program when the
Association for Computing Machinery gave him the Grace Murray Hopper
In 1982, Software Arts had revenues of $11 million and 125 employees,
but like any ground-breaking idea that made money, VisiCalc began to
face competition from other spreadsheet programs. In addition, the
partnership between Software Arts and VisiCorp, the new name of
Flystra's company, began to fall apart. In 1983, VisiCorp filed a
lawsuit contending that Bricklin and Frankston had not improved
VisiCalc as agreed and VisiCorp claimed rights to the program. By
1984, sales of VisiCalc had dropped to only 2,500 units per month,
due in part to a new spread sheet program called Lotus 1-2-3. In
1985, Software Arts, weakened by its battle with VisiCorp, was
purchased by Lotus Software.
Bricklin served as a consultant for Lotus for a short time, but by
the end of 1985 he had started over, operating his new company,
Software Garden, Inc., out of his home. His first product was Dan
Bricklin's Demo Program, a $75 program that enabled software
developers to create demonstrations of their software even before
they had it completely written. Later versions of the program, titled
Dan Bricklin's Demo and Demo-It, were published by Lifeboat
Having ridden the rocket of fame and prosperity to the top, in 1985
Bricklin put his success into perspective when he said, "I'm not
rich because I invented VisiCalc, but I feel that I've made a change
in the world. That's a satisfaction money can't buy."
In 1992, Bricklin was not only running Software Garden but was also
vice president of Slate Corporation, a company developing a pen-based
program that was an advancement of the VisiCalc concept. Both
Bricklin and Frankston worked for Slate, with Frankston leaving in
Bricklin continued to look at the traditional way of doing things and
search for better, more efficient methods, sometimes even working on
software before there was hardware that could run it. His work with
the pen-based technology of Slate was an example of his ability to
think beyond the constraints of reality. In 1995, Bricklin told the
Los Angeles Times, "Product is my thing. I like to develop new
metaphors and new ways of using computers. If there are new metaphors
to be found, I won't find all of them, but I'll find some of them."
In 1995, Bricklin saw the future for computer technology in putting
video on people's desks that would allow them to have face-to-face
meetings with customers, service providers, and associates.
Dan Bricklin's ability to apply his knowledge and experience to
problems in a unique way and create simple solutions is perhaps his
greatest contribution to computer science. In an age when software
seems to get more complex, Dan Bricklin's programs, such as OverAll,
AtHand, and timeLOCK, are refreshing.
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