Join 3,376 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


VisiCalc turns 30
May 26, 2009 11:20 AM   Subscribe

In 1978, Dan Bricklin came up with the idea for an interactive "visual calculator". Thirty years ago this month, Software Arts published an ad in the preeminent computer magazine of the time and demoed VisiCalc at the West Coast Computer Faire.

Originally conceived for the DEC, Bricklin was convinced to write it instead for the Apple II. A relative memory hog at the time at 27k, it managed to propel the 32k Apple II into a giant hit as a business machine.

Happy Birthday, VisiCalc. More info available on Dan Bricklin's site, including a freely downloadable executable.
posted by mkultra (20 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've been using computers long enough to have been a VisiCalc user, on a super-powered desktop computer for the time, the Apple III (the 5 MB hard drive was roughly the size of a 2-inch binder, cost $3,000, and would experience an irreparable head crash if slightly jostled). I still have my copy of VisiCalc, with the original box, disks, manuals, etc. I thought it might become a collectors' item of the future since it was the first "killer app".
posted by angiep at 12:06 PM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


You know, even a "A Brief History of Spreadsheets" is far too much information about spreadsheets.

I kid, I kid!

Having been raised on Excel and a GUI, I have no idea how cumbersome VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 were but I can imagine.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 12:09 PM on May 26, 2009


Lotus 1-2-3 was awesome. The UI was actually really slick and quite fast. Provided you had memorized all the commands, of course. But given that, it got a lot done in a minimum of screen space.
posted by GuyZero at 12:11 PM on May 26, 2009


Provided you had memorized all the commands, of course.

Gone (mostly) are the days of the cardboard printout with all of the command keys surrounding the keyboard.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:25 PM on May 26, 2009


Having been raised on Excel and a GUI, I have no idea how cumbersome VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 were but I can imagine.

Download visicalc, and you don't have to!
posted by !Jim at 12:51 PM on May 26, 2009


Ah, yes, Ctrl-F7 still activates spell checking in Word I believe. From the glory days of WordPerfect keyboard-chord commands. The /-commands in 1-2-3 were harder to pu tinto a simple template on the keyboard but I expect it was because it was influenced by VisiCalc which was designed for machines without F keys.

Also, F keys on the left! Who's with me?
posted by GuyZero at 12:51 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Works quite well on XP, no DosBox necessary.
posted by bertrandom at 1:01 PM on May 26, 2009


Having been raised on Excel and a GUI, I have no idea how cumbersome VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 were but I can imagine.

Funny how you mentioned Excel, GUI, and "cumbersome" in the same sentence.

(I was just helping my mom edit in Word last night; she was never taught how to highlight text using the keyboard, and kept botching the selection using the mouse. I reached down and fixed it with three keystrokes.)

Gone (mostly) are the days of the cardboard printout with all of the command keys surrounding the keyboard.

If pressed, I might be able to replicate a good chunk of the WordPerfect F-key commands. I'd have to start with sense memory, though.

Anyway, it is interesting how powerful this simple idea became.
posted by dhartung at 1:41 PM on May 26, 2009


I thought Bricklin's Demo II quite good as well. I made a living with it for a while.
posted by bz at 2:37 PM on May 26, 2009


Visicalc's progeny includes many boss mode screens.
posted by exogenous at 2:41 PM on May 26, 2009


West Coast Computer Faire!

Earlier than my day, but interesting for a number of reasons. Adam Osborne of Osborne Computer Corporation gave the keynote in 1978. In his speech, he specifically warned the music industry that the advancements in memory design that allowed larger amounts on smaller chips (so, in 1978 is was ridiculously small amounts) would have a devastating effect on the industry in the future.

To put this in perspective, this is before the Moving Pictures Expert Group (MPEG) had even formed, let alone developed the MPEG-3 (MP3) format.

Unfortunately, I had a bookmark the site that had PDF's for the past speeches, but I can't seem to track it down.
posted by purephase at 2:59 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I pretty much use Excel in the same way I used Lotus 1-2-3 / VisiCalc, probably time to read the manual!
posted by bottlebrushtree at 3:36 PM on May 26, 2009


"Those were the days, my friend..."
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:55 PM on May 26, 2009


"Those were the days, my friend..."

Boy the way those F-keys clicked
Keyboard templates showed the tricks
Microsoft can eat a dick
Those were the days.

sorry
posted by DecemberBoy at 4:11 PM on May 26, 2009 [6 favorites]


There are very few ideas in the history of human computer interfaces that are astonishingly novel. The spreadsheet is one of them. For many people it's the only programming they ever learn.
posted by Nelson at 5:15 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Visicalc is the bomb, not was, is. All you big fat bloated programmers out there, study this. It crushes you. This, and Lotus 1-2-3, they defined awesome programming. You guys with your bloated code pale by comparison, you are not worthy. sorry.......
posted by caddis at 6:46 PM on May 26, 2009


There are very few ideas in the history of human computer interfaces that are astonishingly novel.

I played with Visicalc as a kid. The grown-ups reckoned it was going to be this huge important thing, but at the time it seemed so basic and natural. There were boxes into which one put sums. It seemed like just the thing that computers (you know, big beige things, with green writing) were made for.

Now, of course, I'm "that bloke who knows Excel"... Consider this a warning, parents...
posted by pompomtom at 11:37 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Visicalc is the bomb, not was, is. All you big fat bloated programmers out there, study this. It crushes you.

This bears repeating- VisiCalc was a spreadsheet in 27k. To put that in perspective, the javascript code on this page that does nothing more than ping back to Google Analytics clocks in at around 22k. The HTML content of this page (minus scripts and images) is currently around 40k.
posted by mkultra at 10:31 AM on May 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Visicalc running in less than 32K was pure art in code. Its lack of software patent makes it even more beautiful.
posted by pashdown at 6:08 PM on May 27, 2009


I once noticed an empty MS Word document was about 20k.
posted by JHarris at 6:22 PM on May 27, 2009


« Older Proposition 8 Upheld by CA Supreme Court....  |  You've probably seen (and hear... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments