VisiCalc 1979

The first copy of VisiCalc for the Apple ][ (Version 1.37) went out the door on October 17, 1979. By the end of the month, we had shipped 1293 copies. As the sales figures grew, VisiCalc became a household word. It even appears in the Oxford English Dictionary.

VisiCalc Unit Sales 1979-80

With two killer apps, Microchess and VisiCalc, sales figures grew with the personal computer industry. For five straight years, from 1979 through 1983, Personal Software/VisiCorp was the largest software company, beating Microsoft each year.

The Importance of VisiCalc

Programming for the Masses.

VisiCalc was the software which brought the power of the personal computer to the common man. Before its introduction, computers, even personal computers, could only be programmed by people who had made the effort to learn a programming language. Users without programming skills were locked into using the existing applications. What they could not do was to solve problems. VisiCalc unlocked the power of the computer as a problem solving device to those who did not wish to learn programming skills and in such a way that it did not seem like programming at all. Even today, most users of spreadsheet applications do not think of themselves as programmers. But that is exactly what they are doing every time they type a formula.

The Power of Simulation.

The power of VisiCalc did not stop with the creation of a completed spreadsheet. The freedom to change any number, anywhere on the page, and see the computed effects, allowed the user to experiment with possibilities in a way which is totally intuitive. As a business planning tool, it automatically created an understanding of the sensitive and insensitive factors which was almost impossible to appreciate in any previous way. The resulting amplification of business intelligence and a heightened awareness of how a business operates becomes embedded in the managers psyche and affects decision making far beyond the expected results of the problem being solved on the screen.

Of course, this power is not restricted to business decision makers. Individuals could plan their budgets, scientists could analyse and simulate data, engineers could perform calculations, and on and on. In every case the ability to ask “what if?” brings out the inner child who wants to play with the data and the result is inspiration, creativity and effortless learning.

Productivity and Power

The combined effect of this power over data in the hands of individuals is an amplification of productivity. It is no wonder that the availability of VisiCalc justified the purchase of a computer. The productivity gains were real and quantifiable.

Before the release of VisiCalc for the TRS-80, I visited Tandy in Fort Worth. It was not a great surprise to see a few Apple computers on managers desks, purchased specifically to run VisiCalc for budgeting and planning. When we negotiated VisiCalc for the IBM PC (it was one of the few programs available on launch day), the managers were already competent VisiCalc users. There must have been some Apples in their office, too.

Almost everyone involved in the personal computer revolution was a child of the sixties. We arrived on the scene with a mission to change the world. The tool we chose was the capability of computers to empower people in ways never before imagined. VisiCalc was one of the keys to that empowerment. Although my contribution was minor and peripheral, participating in bringing VisiCalc into the world was most satisfying because it fulfilled that mission in a most direct and unambiguous way.


Everything about VisiCalc by Bob and Dan
Dan Bricklin’s History of VisiCalc (Most of the pictures are from his site).
Bob Frankston on Implementing VisiCalc
Download PC VisiCalc, vintage 1982
Creation and Destruction of VisiCalc by Ed Esber
VisiCalc and spreadsheet in the Oxford English Dictionary
Was VisiCalc the first computerized spreadsheet?"
VisiCalc Case Study in Corporate Strategy. Collis and Montgomery.
VisiCalc Case Study by Rumelt and Watt, Anderson School of Management, UCLA. [pdf]

Peter Jennings