Last updated
Visicalc logo.svg
An example VisiCalc spreadsheet on an Apple II
Developer(s) Software Arts
Initial release1979;40 years ago (1979)
Stable release
VisiCalc Advanced Version / 1983;36 years ago (1983)
Operating system Apple II, Apple SOS, CP/M, Atari 8-bit family, Commodore PET, TRSDOS, Sony SMC-70, DOS, HP series 80
Type Spreadsheet
License Commercial proprietary software

VisiCalc (for "visible calculator") [1] was the first spreadsheet computer program for personal computers, originally released for the Apple II by VisiCorp. It is often considered the application that turned the microcomputer from a hobby for computer enthusiasts into a serious business tool, prompting IBM to introduce the IBM PC two years later. [2] VisiCalc is considered the Apple II's killer app. [3] It sold over 700,000 copies in six years, and as many as 1 million copies over its history.

A spreadsheet is an interactive computer application for organization, analysis and storage of data in tabular form. Spreadsheets developed as computerized analogs of paper accounting worksheets. The program operates on data entered in cells of a table. Each cell may contain either numeric or text data, or the results of formulas that automatically calculate and display a value based on the contents of other cells. A spreadsheet may also refer to one such electronic document.

Personal computer Computer intended for use by an individual person

A personal computer (PC) is a multi-purpose computer whose size, capabilities, and price make it feasible for individual use. Personal computers are intended to be operated directly by an end user, rather than by a computer expert or technician. Unlike large costly minicomputer and mainframes, time-sharing by many people at the same time is not used with personal computers.

Apple II first Apple II series computer

The Apple II is an 8-bit home computer, one of the first highly successful mass-produced microcomputer products, designed primarily by Steve Wozniak. It was introduced in 1977 at the West Coast Computer Faire by Jobs and was the first consumer product sold by Apple Computer, Inc. It is the first model in a series of computers which were produced until Apple IIe production ceased in November 1993. The Apple II marks Apple's first launch of a personal computer aimed at a consumer market – branded towards American households rather than businessmen or computer hobbyists.


Initially developed for the Apple II using a 6502 assembler running on the Multics time sharing system, [4] [5] [6] VisiCalc was ported to numerous platforms, both 8-bit and some of the early 16-bit systems. In order to do this, the company developed porting platforms that produced bug compatible versions. The company took the same approach when the IBM PC was launched, producing a product that was essentially identical to the original 8-bit Apple II version. Sales were initially brisk, with about 300,000 copies sold.

Multics operating system

Multics is an influential early time-sharing operating system which is based on the concept of a single-level memory. Virtually all modern operating systems were heavily influenced by Multics – often through Unix, which was created by some of the people who had worked on Multics – either directly or indirectly.

VisiCalc used the A1 notation in formulas. [7]

When Lotus 1-2-3 was launched in 1983, taking full advantage of the expanded memory and screen of the PC, VisiCalc sales ended almost overnight. Sales declined so rapidly that the company was soon insolvent. Lotus Development purchased the company in 1985, and immediately ended sales of VisiCalc and the company's other products.

Lotus 1-2-3 software

Lotus 1-2-3 is a discontinued spreadsheet program from Lotus Software. It was the IBM PC's first killer application, was hugely popular in the 1980s and contributed significantly to the success of the IBM PC.


VISICALC represented a new idea of a way to use a computer and a new way of thinking about the world. Where conventional programming was thought of as a sequence of steps, this new thing was no longer sequential in effect: When you made a change in one place, all other things changed instantly and automatically.

Ted Nelson [8]

Dan Bricklin conceived VisiCalc while watching a presentation at Harvard Business School. The professor was creating a financial model on a blackboard that was ruled with vertical and horizontal lines (resembling accounting paper) to create a table, and he wrote formulas and data into the cells. When the professor found an error or wanted to change a parameter, he had to erase and rewrite several sequential entries in the table. Bricklin realized that he could replicate the process on a computer using an "electronic spreadsheet" to view results of underlying formulae. [9]

Dan Bricklin VisiCalc inventor

Daniel Singer "Dan" Bricklin, often referred to as “The Father of the Spreadsheet”, is the American co-creator, with Bob Frankston, of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program. He also founded Software Garden, Inc., of which he is currently president, and Trellix Corporation, which is currently owned by He currently serves as the chief technology officer of Alpha Software.

Harvard Business School business school in Boston, Massachusetts

Harvard Business School (HBS) is the graduate business school of Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. The school offers a large full-time MBA program, doctoral programs, HBS Online and many executive education programs. It owns Harvard Business Publishing, which publishes business books, leadership articles, online management tools for corporate learning, case studies and the monthly Harvard Business Review. It is home to the Baker Library/Bloomberg Center.

Bob Frankston joined Bricklin, and the pair formed the Software Arts company and developed the VisiCalc program for two months during the winter of 1978–79. Bricklin wrote that

Bob Frankston American businessman

Robert M. Frankston is the co-creator with Dan Bricklin of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program and the co-founder of Software Arts, the company that developed it.

Software Arts was a software company founded by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston in 1979 to develop VisiCalc, which was published by a separate company, Personal Software Inc., later named VisiCorp.

with the years of experience we had at the time we created VisiCalc, we were familiar with many row/column financial programs. In fact, Bob had worked since the 1960s at Interactive Data Corporation, a major timesharing utility that was used for some of them and I was exposed to some at Harvard Business School in one of the classes.

Bricklin was referring to the variety of report generators that were in use at that time, including Business Planning Language (BPL) from International Timesharing Corporation (ITS) and Foresight from Foresight Systems. However, these earlier timesharing programs were not completely interactive, nor did they run on personal computers.

A report generator is a computer program whose purpose is to take data from a source such as a database, XML stream or a spreadsheet, and use it to produce a document in a format which satisfies a particular human readership.

Frankston described VisiCalc as a "magic sheet of paper that can perform calculations and recalculations", which "allows the user to just solve the problem using familiar tools and concepts". The Personal Software company began selling VisiCalc in mid-1979 for under $100, after a demonstration at the fourth West Coast Computer Faire and an official launch on June 4 at the National Computer Conference. It required an Apple II with 32K of random-access memory (RAM), and supported saving files to magnetic tape cassette or to Apple's Disk II floppy disk system. [10]

VisiCalc was unusually easy to use and came with excellent documentation; Apple's developer documentation cited the software as an example of one with a simple user interface. [11] [12] Observers immediately noticed its power. Ben Rosen speculated in July 1979 that "VisiCalc could someday become the software tail that wags (and sells) the personal computer dog". [13] [14] For the first 12 months it was only available for the Apple II, and it became that platform's killer app. Many bought $2000 Apples to run the $100 software [15] [14] —more than 25% of those sold in 1979 were reportedly for VisiCalc [13] —even if they already owned computers. [16] Steve Wozniak said that small businesses, not the hobbyists he and Steve Jobs had expected, purchased 90% of Apple IIs. [17] Apple's rival Tandy Corporation used VisiCalc on its own Apple IIs. [18] Other software supported its Data Interchange Format (DIF) to share data. [12] One example was the Microsoft BASIC interpreter supplied with most microcomputers that ran VisiCalc. This allowed skilled BASIC programmers to add features, such as trigonometric functions, that VisiCalc lacked.

Bricklin and Frankston originally intended to fit the program into 16k memory, but they later realized that the program needed at least 32k. Even 32k was too small to support some features that the creators wanted to include, such as a split text/graphics screen . However, Apple eventually began shipping all Apple IIs with 48k memory following a drop in RAM prices, which enabled the developers to include more features. The initial release supported tape cassette storage, but that was quickly dropped.

At VisiCalc's release, Personal Software promised to port the program to other computers, starting with those that used the MOS Technology 6502 microprocessor, [10] and versions appeared for the Atari 800 and Commodore PET, both of which could be done easily because those computers used the same processor as the Apple II, and large portions of code could be reused. The PET version, which contained two separate executables for 40 and 80-column models, was widely criticized for having a very small amount of worksheet space due to the developers' inclusion of their own custom DOS, which used a large amount of memory (the PET only had 32k versus the Apple II's available 48k).

Other ports followed for the Apple III, Zilog Z-80-based Tandy TRS-80 Model I, Model II, Model III, Model 4, and Sony SMC-70. The TRS-80 Model I and Sony SMC-70 ports were the only versions of VisiCalc without copy protection. The Sony SMC-70 port was the only CP/M version. Most versions were disk-based, but the PET VisiCalc came with a ROM chip that the user had to install in one of the motherboard's expansion ROM sockets. The most important port was for the IBM PC, and VisiCalc was one of the first commercial packages available when the IBM PC shipped in 1981. [18] It quickly became a best-seller on this platform, in spite of being severely limited to be compatible with the versions for the 8-bit platforms. It is estimated that 300,000 copies were sold on the PC, bringing total sales to about 1 million copies. [19]

By 1982 VisiCalc's price had risen from $100 to $250. [20] Several competitors appeared in the market, notably SuperCalc [16] and Multiplan, [21] each of which added more features and corrected deficiencies in VisiCalc, but could not overcome its market dominance. A more dramatic change occurred with the 1983 launch of Lotus Development Corporation's Lotus 1-2-3, written by a former Personal Software/VisiCorp employee, Mitch Kapor, who had written VisiTrend and VisiPlot. Unlike the PC version of VisiCalc, 1-2-3 was written to take full advantage of the PC's increased memory, screen and performance. Yet it was designed to be as compatible as possible with VisiCalc, including the menu structure, to allow VisiCalc users to easily migrate to 1-2-3.

1-2-3 was almost immediately successful, and by 1984 InfoWorld wrote that sales of VisiCalc were "rapidly declining", stating that it was "the first successful software product to have gone through a complete life cycle, from conception in 1978 to introduction in 1979 to peak success in 1982 to decline in 1983 to a probable death, according to industry insiders, in 1984." The magazine added that the company was slow to upgrade the software, only releasing an Advanced Version of VisiCalc for the Apple II in 1983 and announcing one for the IBM PC in 1984. [21] By 1985 VisiCorp was insolvent. Lotus Development acquired Software Arts and ended sales of the application. [19]



In 1983 Softline readers named VisiCalc tenth overall, and the highest non-game, on the magazine's Top Thirty list of Atari 8-bit programs by popularity. [24] II Computing listed it second on the magazine's list of top Apple II software as of late 1985, based on sales and market-share data. [25]

In its 1980 review, BYTE wrote "The most exciting and influential piece of software that has been written for any microcomputer application is VisiCalc". It concluded, "VisiCalc is the first program available on a microcomputer that has been responsible for sales of entire systems". [26] Creative Computing 's review the same year similarly concluded, "for almost anyone in business, education, or any science-related field it is ... reason enough to purchase a small computer system in the first place". [27] Compute! reported, "Every Visicalc user knows of someone who purchased an Apple just to be able to use Visicalc". [28] Antic wrote in 1984, "VisiCalc isn't as easy to use as prepackaged home accounting programs, because you're required to design both the layout and the formulas used by the program. Because it is not pre-packaged, however, it's infinitely more powerful and flexible than such programs. You can use VisiCalc to balance your checkbook, keep track of credit card purchases, calculate your net worth, do your taxes—the possibilities are practically limitless." [29] The Addison-Wesley Book of Atari Software 1984 gave the application an overall A+ rating, praising its documentation and calling it "indispensable ... a straight 'A' classic". [12]

In 1999, Harvard Business School put up a plaque commemorating Dan Bricklin in the room that he was studying in. It read "Forever changed how people use computers in business." [30]

In 2006, Charles Babcock of InformationWeek wrote that, in retrospect, "VisiCalc was flawed and clunky, and couldn't do many things users wanted it to do”, but also, “It's great because it demonstrated the power of personal computing.” [31]

See also

Related Research Articles

A disk operating system is a computer operating system that can use a disk storage device, such as a floppy disk, hard disk drive, or optical disc. A disk operating system must provide a file system for organizing, reading, and writing files on the storage disk. Strictly speaking, this definition does not apply to current generations of operating systems, such as versions of Microsoft Windows in use, and is more appropriately used only for older generations of operating systems.

Multiplan spreadsheet software from Microsoft

Multiplan was an early spreadsheet program developed by Microsoft. Known initially by the code name "EP", it was introduced in 1982 as a competitor for VisiCalc.

Lotus Improv spreadsheet program

Lotus Improv is a discontinued spreadsheet program from Lotus Development released in 1991 for the NeXTSTEP platform and then for Windows 3.1 in 1993. Development was put on hiatus in 1994 after slow sales on the Windows platform, and officially ended in April 1996 after Lotus was purchased by IBM.

In marketing terminology, a killer application is any computer program that is so necessary or desirable that it proves the core value of some larger technology, such as computer hardware, a gaming console, software, a programming language, a software platform, or an operating system. In other words, consumers would buy the hardware just to run that application. A killer app can substantially increase sales of the platform on which it runs.

KoalaPad 1980s computer graphics tablet

The KoalaPad is a graphics tablet produced from 1983 by U.S. company Koala Technologies for the Apple II, TRS-80 Color Computer, Atari 8-bit family, and Commodore 64, as well as for the IBM PC.

Visi On

VisiCorp Visi On was a short-lived but highly influential graphical user interface-based operating environment program for IBM compatible personal computers running MS-DOS. Although Visi On was never popular, as it had steep minimum system requirements for its day, it was a major influence on the later development of Microsoft Windows.

VisiCorp was an early personal computer software publisher. Its most famous products are Microchess, Visi On and VisiCalc.

Data Interchange Format (.dif) is a text file format used to import/export single spreadsheets between spreadsheet programs. One limitation is that DIF format cannot handle multiple spreadsheets in a single workbook.

wikiCalc is a web application, created by Dan Bricklin, that allows for the creation and editing of spreadsheets through a wiki-style user-editable interface. It is currently released as version 1.0 for use on Windows, Mac, Linux/Unix, and other platforms that can run the Perl language.

Dan Fylstra is a pioneer of the software products industry.

Influence of the IBM PC on the personal computer market

Following the introduction of the IBM Personal Computer, or IBM PC, many other personal computer architectures became extinct within just a few years.

Sorcim was an early start-up company in Silicon Valley, founded in June 1980 by Richard Frank, Paul McQuesten, Martin Herbach, Anil Lakhwara, and Steve Jasik - all former Control Data Corporation employees working in the Language Group in Sunnyvale, CA. Jasik left company early on, to develop the MacNosy product for the Macintosh.

Home computer class of microcomputers

Home computers were a class of microcomputers that entered the market in 1977, that started with what Byte Magazine called the "trinity of 1977", and which became common during the 1980s. They were marketed to consumers as affordable and accessible computers that, for the first time, were intended for the use of a single nontechnical user. These computers were a distinct market segment that typically cost much less than business, scientific or engineering-oriented computers of the time such as the IBM PC, and were generally less powerful in terms of memory and expandability. However, a home computer often had better graphics and sound than contemporary business computers. Their most common uses were playing video games, but they were also regularly used for word processing, doing homework, and programming.

Peter R. Jennings is a Canadian physicist, scientist, inventor, software developer, computer chess programmer, and entrepreneur. He is best known for creating MicroChess, the first microcomputer game to be sold commercially in 1976.


  1. "A sidebar to the article "Ten Years of Rows and Columns" published in Byte, issue 13/1989, pp. 326-328". Yeah, we called it all sorts of things – electronic ledger, electronic blackboard, visible calculator – that’s what we finally based the name, VisiCalc, on.
  2. Hill, Charles (1 Jan 2014). Strategic Management: Theory & Cases: An Integrated Approach. Cengage Learning. p. C-177. ISBN   9781305142725.
  3. "Nintendo's Leap into the Unknown". Next Generation . No. 23. Imagine Media. November 1996. p. 15.
  4. "Bricklin on Technology".
  5. "SLIDESHOW: CIO Blast from the Past - 40 years of Multics - Slideshow - CIO".
  6. "Historical Background of Spreadsheets".
  7. "The Idea" . Retrieved 7 February 2017.
  8. "Whole Earth Software Catalog".
  9. "Dan Bricklin, Inventor of the Electronic Spreadsheet". Low End Mac. November 7, 2006. Retrieved July 13, 2016.
  10. 1 2 "VisiCalc: User-Defined Problem Solving Package". The Intelligent Machines Journal. 1 (9): 22. June 11, 1979. ISSN   0199-6649. The formal introduction of VisiCalc is scheduled for the National Computer Conference, being held June 4–7, in New York City.
  11. Meyers, Joe; Tognazzini, Bruce (1982). Apple IIe Design Guidelines (PDF). Apple Computer. p. 22.
  12. 1 2 3 Stanton, Jeffrey; Wells, Robert P. Ph.D.; Rochowansky, Sandra; Mellid, Michael Ph.D., eds. (1984). The Addison-Wesley Book of Atari Software. Addison-Wesley. p. 214. ISBN   0-201-16454-X.
  13. 1 2 Brandel, Mary (1999-08-02). "PC Software Transforms The PC". PC Magazine. p. 62.
  14. 1 2 McMullen, Barbara E. & John F. (1984-02-21). "Apple Charts The Course For IBM". PC Magazine. p. 122. Retrieved 24 October 2013.
  15. Markoff, John (1982-07-05). "Radio Shack: set apart from the rest of the field". InfoWorld. p. 36. Retrieved 10 February 2015.
  16. 1 2 Barry, Tim (1981-10-05). "SuperCalc Spread-Sheet Simulator from Sorcim Corp". InfoWorld. p. 30. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  17. Williams, Gregg; Moore, Rob (January 1985). "The Apple Story / Part 2: More History and the Apple III". BYTE (interview). p. 166. Retrieved October 26, 2013.
  18. 1 2 Reed, Matthew. "VisiCalc". Retrieved 23 January 2015.
  19. 1 2 Langdell, James (1985-08-06). "VisiCalc Production Ends". PC Magazine. p. 33. Retrieved 28 October 2013.
  20. Tommervik, Allan (March 1982). "What Price Software? / Part 2 of The Great Arcade/Computer Controversy". Softline. p. 10. Retrieved 15 July 2014.
  21. 1 2 Caruso, Denise (1984-04-02). "Company Strategies Boomerang". InfoWorld. pp. 80–83. Retrieved 10 February 2015.
  22. Inc, Ziff Davis (17 April 1984). "PC Mag". Ziff Davis, Inc. Retrieved 7 February 2017 via Google Books.
  23. "1984 TRS-80 Catalog RSC-10 page 21". Radio Shack Computer Catalogs. Tandy/Radio Shack. Retrieved December 7, 2016.
  24. "The Most Popular Atari Program Ever". Softline. March 1983. p. 44. Retrieved 28 July 2014.
  25. Ciraolo, Michael (Oct–Nov 1985). "Top Software / A List of Favorites". II Computing. p. 51. Retrieved 28 January 2015.
  26. Ramsdell, Robert E (November 1980). "The Power of VisiCalc". BYTE. pp. 190–192. Retrieved 18 October 2013.
  27. Green, Doug (August 1980). "VisiCalc: Reason Enough For Owning A Computer". Creative Computing. p. 26. Retrieved 18 October 2013.
  28. Budge, Joseph H. (July–August 1980). "VISICALC: A Software Review". Compute!. p. 19. Retrieved 25 October 2013.
  29. Kattan, Joseph (June 1984). "Product Reviews: VisiCalc". Antic . 3 (2): 80. Retrieved April 15, 2011.
  30. "Public recognition of Dan Bricklin's work". Retrieved 2018-03-19.
  31. Babcock, Charles (8 November 2006). "What's The Greatest Software Ever Written?". InformationWeek . UBM.

Further reading