This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the public debut of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet and the personal computer industry’s original killer app. Co-creator Dan Bricklin has a post with some memories of the launch and links to videos of him and VisiCalc’s other father, Bob Frankston, talking about the debut.
Dan says that VisiCalc was unveiled at the National Computer Conference, an early PC convention that was held in New York from June 4th-7th 1979. I have vivid memories of seeing Bricklin and Frankston demo VisiCalc at the first meeting I ever attended of the Boston Computer Society, and always remembered that demo as being VisiCalc’s public debut. If the NCC announcement happened first, the BCS showing must have happened very shortly thereafter. But it was certainly the first time I’d heard of VisiCalc, and the program knocked my socks off. (Boy, what I’d give to see a video of that demo, along with many other ones of major products hosted by the BCS from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s.)
Unless you want to make a case for the early word processor known as Electric Pencil, VisiCalc was the first application so compelling that people bought computers to run it. It defined the spreadsheet, which came to be one of two defining productivity applications (the other being word processing). Lotus 1-2-3, the most popular productivity app of the 1980s, was directly inspired by VisiCalc; Microsoft Excel was designed to be a 1-2-3 killer, and eventually did the job. (Even Excel 2007 is essentially a VisiCalc upgrade with a lot more features and a prettier interface–the concept hasn’t changed a bit.)
I can’t quite decide if the fact that VisiCalc emerged three decades ago is evidence that personal computing has been around for a long time, or that it’s still a remarkably young industry. Either way, the anniversary is worth celebrating…