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Home » A Problem That Changed The World: Dan Bricklin at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

A Problem That Changed The World: Dan Bricklin at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Dan Bricklin – TRANSCRIPT

How many of you have used an electronic spreadsheet, like Microsoft Excel? Very good. Now, how many of you have run a business with a spreadsheet by hand, like my dad did for his small printing business in Philadelphia? A lot less.

Well, that’s the way it was done for hundreds of years. In early 1978, I started working on an idea that eventually became VisiCalc. And the next year it shipped, running on something new called an Apple II personal computer. You could tell that things had really changed when, six years later, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial that assumed you knew what VisiCalc was and maybe even were using it.

Steve Jobs back in 1990 said that “Spreadsheets propelled the industry forward. VisiCalc propelled the success of Apple more than any other single event.” On a more personal note, Steve said:

“If VisiCalc had been written for some other computer, you’d be interviewing somebody else right now.”

So, VisiCalc was instrumental in getting personal computers on business desks.

How did it come about? What was it? What did I go through to make it be what it was? Well, I first learned to program back in 1966, when I was 15 — just a couple months after this photo was taken. Few high schoolers had access to computers in those days.

But through luck and an awful lot of perseverance, I was able to get computer time around the city. After sleeping in the mud at Woodstock, I went off to MIT to go to college, where to make money, I worked on the Multics Project. Multics was a trailblazing interactive time-sharing system. Have you heard of the Linux and Unix operating systems? They came from Multics. I worked on the Multics versions of what are known as interpreted computer languages, that are used by people in noncomputer fields to do their calculations while seated at a computer terminal.

After I graduated from MIT, I went to work for Digital Equipment Corporation. At DEC, I worked on software for the new area of computerized typesetting. I helped newspapers replace their reporters’ typewriters with computer terminals. I’d write software and then I’d go out in the field to places like the Kansas City Star, where I would train users and get feedback. This was real-world experience that is quite different than what I saw in the lab at MIT.

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