Electronic Design
Daniel S. Bricklin and Bob Frankston: Engineers Add Up To Early Spreadsheet Success

Daniel S. Bricklin and Bob Frankston: Engineers Add Up To Early Spreadsheet Success

Software Arts Inc. cofounders Bob Frankston (standing) and Dan Bricklin invented VisiCalc, the first personal computer spreadsheet. (courtesy of www.jimraycroft.com, 1982)

Anyone who uses Excel owes a debt of gratitude to Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, the inventors of VisiCalc, the first personal computer spreadsheet. Both men attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Bricklin received a BS in electrical engineering/computer science in 1973, while Frankston received BS degrees in computer science and mathematics in 1970 and master’s and engineer’s degrees in computer science (and EE) in 1974.

The two first met at the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT, programming various interactive systems. After graduation, Bricklin worked at companies such as Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) and FasFax Corp. In 1977, he entered Harvard to work toward his MBA, which he received in 1979. In the meantime, Frankston was doing graduate work back at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science.

While still in grad school in 1978, Bricklin came up with the idea of an interactive visible calculator and programmed the first working prototype of his concept on an Apple II in Basic. The program wasn’t powerful enough, though, so he asked Frankston to improve and expand it. They founded Software Arts Corp. in January 1979, and Frankston turned Bricklin’s idea into a powerful and compact spreadsheet program they named VisiCalc, for Visible Calculator.

In October 1979, the first Apple II versions of VisiCalc appeared in computer stores. It was an instant success. About 1 million copies were sold within four years. Software Arts grew from two employees to 125 on the back of VisiCalc for the Apple II and later versions of the popular personal computer. VisiCalc is widely recognized as one of the main catalysts that brought about the rapid growth of the personal computer industry.

Since the VisiCalc days, Bricklin has started a number of companies, including Software Garden and Trellix Corp. In early 2004, he returned to Software Garden, where as president he is doing software development, speaking, and consulting for a variety of companies. Frankston has worked for a number of companies since then as well, including Lotus Development Corp., Slate Corp., and Microsoft. At present, he is a member of CommonAngels, concentrating on early and seed stage investments.

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