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  • Translator: Crawford Hunt Reviewer: Brian Greene

  • 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.

  • After that, I was project leader

  • of the software for DEC's first word processor, again a new field.

  • Like with typesetting, the important thing was crafting a user interface

  • that was both natural and efficient for noncomputer people to use.

  • After I was at DEC, I went to work for a small company

  • that made microprocessor-based electronic cash registers for the fast-food industry.

  • But I had always wanted to start a company with my friend Bob Frankston

  • that I met on the Multics project at MIT.

  • So I decided to go back to school to learn as much as I could about business.

  • And in the fall of 1977,

  • I entered the MBA program at Harvard Business School.

  • I was one of the few percentage of students

  • who had a background in computer programming.

  • There's a picture of me from the yearbook sitting in the front row.

  • (Laughter)

  • Now, at Harvard, we learned by the case method.

  • We'd do about three cases a day.

  • Cases consist of up to a few dozen pages describing particular business situations.

  • They often have exhibits, and exhibits often have words and numbers

  • laid out in ways that make sense for the particular situation.

  • They're usually all somewhat different.

  • Here's my homework.

  • Again, numbers, words, laid out in ways that made sense.

  • Lots of calculations -- we got really close to our calculators.

  • In fact, here's my calculator.

  • For Halloween, I went dressed up as a calculator.

  • (Laughter)

  • At the beginning of each class, the professor would call on somebody

  • to present the case.

  • What they would do is they would explain what was going on

  • and then dictate information that the professor would transcribe

  • onto the many motorized blackboards in the front of the class,

  • and then we'd have a discussion.

  • One of the really frustrating things is when you've done all your homework,

  • you come in the next day only to find out that you made an error

  • and all of the other numbers you did were wrong.

  • And you couldn't participate as well.

  • And we were marked by class participation.

  • So, sitting there with 87 other people in the class, I got to daydream a lot.

  • Most programmers in those days worked on mainframes,

  • building things like inventory systems, payroll systems and bill-paying systems.

  • But I had worked on interactive word processing

  • and on-demand personal computation.

  • Instead of thinking about paper printouts and punch cards,

  • I imagined a magic blackboard

  • that if you erased one number and wrote a new thing in,

  • all of the other numbers would automatically change,

  • like word processing with numbers.

  • I imagined that my calculator had mouse hardware on the bottom of it

  • and a head-up display, like in a fighter plane.

  • And I could type some numbers in, and circle it, and press the sum button.

  • And right in the middle of a negotiation I'd be able to get the answer.

  • Now I just had to take my fantasy and turn it into reality.

  • My father taught me about prototyping.

  • He showed me mock-ups

  • that he'd make to figure out the placement on the page

  • for the things for brochures that he was printing.

  • And he'd use it to get feedback from customers

  • and OKs before he sent the job off to the presses.

  • The act of making a simple, working version of what you're trying to build

  • forces you to uncover key problems.

  • And it lets you find solutions to those problems much less expensively.

  • So I decided to build a prototype.

  • I went to a video terminal connected to Harvard's time-sharing system

  • and got to work.

  • One of the first problems that I ran into was:

  • How do you represent values in formulas?

  • Let me show you what I mean.

  • I thought that you would point somewhere,

  • type in some words, then type in some somewhere else,

  • put in some numbers and some more numbers, point where you want the answer.

  • And then point to the first, press minus, point to the second,

  • and get the result.

  • The problem was: What should I put in the formula?

  • It had to be something the computer knew what to put in.

  • And if you looked at the formula,

  • you needed to know where on the screen it referred to.

  • The first thing I thought was the programmer way of doing it.

  • The first time you pointed to somewhere,

  • the computer would ask you to type in a unique name.

  • It became pretty clear pretty fast that that was going to be too tedious.

  • The computer had to automatically make up the name and put it inside.

  • So I thought, why not make it be the order in which you create them?

  • I tried that. Value 1, value 2.

  • Pretty quickly I saw that if you had more than a few values

  • you'd never remember on the screen where things were.

  • Then I said, why not instead of allowing you to put values anywhere,

  • I'll restrict you to a grid?

  • Then when you pointed to a cell,

  • the computer could put the row and column in as a name.

  • And, if I did it like a map and put ABC across the top and numbers along the side,

  • if you saw B7 in a formula,

  • you'd know exactly where it was on the screen.

  • And if you had to type the formula in yourself, you'd know what to do.

  • Restricting you to a grid helped solve my problem.

  • It also opened up new capabilities, like the ability to have ranges of cells.

  • But it wasn't too restrictive --

  • you could still put any value, any formula, in any cell.

  • And that's the way we do it to this day, almost 40 years later.

  • My friend Bob and I decided that we were going to build this product together.

  • I did more work figuring out exactly how the program was supposed to behave.

  • I wrote a reference card to act as documentation.

  • It also helped me ensure that the user interface I was defining

  • could be explained concisely and clearly to regular people.

  • Bob worked in the attic of the apartment he rented in Arlington, Massachusetts.

  • This is the inside of the attic.

  • Bob bought time on the MIT Multics System

  • to write computer code on a terminal like this.

  • And then he would download test versions to a borrowed Apple II

  • over a phone line using an acoustic coupler,

  • and then we would test.

  • For one of these tests I prepared for this case about the Pepsi Challenge.

  • Print wasn't working yet, so I had to copy everything down.

  • Save wasn't working, so every time it crashed,

  • I had to type in all of the formulas again, over and over again.

  • The next day in class, I raised my hand; I got called on, and I presented the case.

  • I did five-year projections. I did all sorts of different scenarios.

  • I aced the case. VisiCalc was already useful.

  • The professor said, "How did you do it?"

  • Well, I didn't want to tell him about our secret program.

  • (Laughter)

  • So I said, "I took this and added this

  • and multiplied by this and subtracted that."

  • He said, "Well, why didn't you use a ratio?"

  • I said, "Hah! A ratio -- that wouldn't have been as exact!"

  • What I didn't say was, "Divide isn't working yet."

  • (Laughter)

  • Eventually, though, we did finish enough of VisiCalc

  • to be able to show it to the public.

  • My dad printed up a sample reference card

  • that we could use as marketing material.

  • In June of 1979, our publisher announced VisiCalc to the world,

  • in a small booth at the giant National Computer Conference in New York City.

  • The New York Times had a humorous article about the conference.

  • "The machines perform what seem religious rites ...

  • Even as the believers gather,

  • the painters in the Coliseum sign room are adding to the pantheon,

  • carefully lettering 'VISICALC' in giant black on yellow.

  • All hail VISICALC!"

  • (Gasp) New York Times: "All hail VISICALC."

  • (Laughter)

  • That was the last mention of the electronic spreadsheet

  • in the popular business press for about two years.

  • Most people didn't get it yet.

  • But some did.

  • In October of 1979, we shipped VisiCalc.

  • It came in packaging that looked like this.

  • And it looked like this running on the Apple II.

  • And the rest, as they say, is history.

  • Now, there's an awful lot more to this story,

  • but that'll have to wait for another day.

  • One thing, though, Harvard remembers.

  • Here's that classroom.

  • They put up a plaque to commemorate what happened there.

  • (Applause)

  • But it also serves as a reminder

  • that you, too, should take your unique backgrounds, skills and needs

  • and build prototypes to discover and work out the key problems,

  • and through that, change the world.

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

Translator: Crawford Hunt Reviewer: Brian Greene

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