Dan Bricklin's Web Site: www.bricklin.com
The story behind my TEDx Talk
The background of my talk and how it turned into a TEDx Talk on TED.com
This essay assumes that you have viewed my TEDx Talk that has been posted on TED.com.
You can find that video, only 12 minutes long, at "Meet the inventor of the electronic spreadsheet".
The essay (which should take longer than 12 minutes to read, unfortunately) has three main parts: The history of the talk I used as the basis for the TEDx talk, the steps I went through as part of the process of creating a talk for TEDx, and some notes about the video keyed to times in it.
If one part doesn't interest you, feel free to skip to the next.
In late August 2016, Bob Frankston and I received an email out of the blue from a person named John Werner asking if we would be willing to speak at TEDxBeaconStreet in mid-November, and also saying that they'd love to give us an "Ideas in Action" lifetime achievement award from the non-profit that created and leads TEDxBeaconStreet.
Awards are always an honor and nice to get. Bob and I receive them stemming from our creation of VisiCalc every once in a while. They are, though, not much work, since you just have to show up and maybe say a few, off-the-cuff words. A TEDx talk, though, is different. It is a presentation "on the record" with strict timing and style requirements, including no reading of notes, and it ends up on highly ranked locations online. It is an entry to the TED Talks world, something highly desirable when you want to tell a story or disseminate a message. Here was the potential start of a 3-month journey that I understood took a lot of work to do well. I had other responsibilities during that time that could suffer. But, it also was an opportunity that I might not get again.
I agreed to do a talk and awaited more information. So did Bob.
Now that the process has reached a major milestone, the posting of my talk not only on the TEDxBeaconStreet site but also TED.com, I thought it was time to document some of what I went through and specifics of how the talk came to be what it is. I've been blogging on and off since at least 1999, chronicling my experiences and thoughts, from attending computer conferences to being stranded in California on 9/11 to riding a Segway to remarks read at my father's funeral to sharing the sound of traipsing through leaves. While others have already written of their TED experiences, I see no reason to leave this out of that record.
(Some of my blog posts and essays ended up in my book, Bricklin on Technology from Wiley. Here are some links for places to get the book or see excerpts: Wiley, O'Reilly Safari, and Google Books.)
History of the talk that was the basis of my TEDx presentation
My TEDx talk ended up being a condensation of parts of a talk I have been giving and evolving since the early 1980's. It tells the story of how VisiCalc came about.
It was, though, a major challenge to do that condensation, since I have been so used to telling a long, complete story extemporaneously -- something verboten for a TEDx Talk. We were told that our talk must be less than 12 minutes and should be tightly crafted and presented much as rehearsed (and they ensure that you do rehearsals). As you can see from this essay, brevity is not my forte.
The versions of this talk that I have been giving over the years, to conferences, company meetings, and university classes, have usually been 45-90 minutes long. I initially used up to three Carousels of 35mm slides. Once video projectors became common (and after dropping the Carousels one time too many, spilling the slides), I scanned them and switched to just showing the photos and perhaps some PowerPoint using a laptop. (I also switched to digital cameras for new photos.) In addition to telling the story of developing VisiCalc and the company behind it, I also tell the story of some projects I worked on after it, as well as expound on related ideas about why a product succeeds or the evolution of technology.
The talk started a couple of years after VisiCalc first came out. I was invited to speak at an Alex. Brown conference for the investment community and the titans of the computer industry (mainly IBM mainframes and DEC minicomputers in those days). My tiny company, Software Arts, wasn't looking to raise money at the time and I had no special pitch to make to that audience. I was also one of the last speakers of the long day. I decided to use my photography hobby and take photos to show people what a small, startup company is like, and explain why a personal computer was more than just "a tiny mainframe". (This was before personal computers were common in business.) I took photos of the outside of Bob's old apartment where VisiCalc was initially coded, and other early photos still in the talk. I used an overhead projector to show my sketching as I explained my theory of how "bandwidth to the screen" differentiated personal computers.
Much to my surprise, people loved the talk, including the photos of a tiny startup. I got invited back to a subsequent conference, adding additional photos. Executives would tell me how they recreated my sketches to explain personal computers to others.
Over time, I got invited to Harvard Business School and other places to give my talk, such as when they were covering the Lotus 1-2-3 case or other entrepreneurial topics. Each time, I added new photos as my career advanced, and each time I got positive feedback about the topic and its presentation. I'd hear how people loved the relaxed, personal manner of my delivery. Eventually, I even had one of my photos shown in Popular Photography Magazine (a childhood dream) as an illustration in an article about executives who do their own slides for presentations. (A reporter for a technical publication who heard my talk also wrote for them.)
As I started giving the talks for honorariums in some cases, I also tried to craft parts related to the audience or sponsoring organization, adding yet more material. For students and others, I often show snippets of video I've collected over the years that illustrate what those "old times" were like, such as Steve Jobs announcing the Macintosh or Lotus' promotional video for 1-2-3 (much of it now generally available on YouTube and elsewhere). As we got further and further from the 1980's, I had to add explanations of what the early personal computer days were like. For some years, everybody knew what Lotus 1-2-3 was, but fewer cared about Apple. Later, Lotus 1-2-3 faded into history and Apple and Steve Jobs reemerged. Realizing you are talking to students about events that happened before their parents met was a new challenge.
In all cases, I usually end with a Q&A session to make sure that audience members get to hear answers to things I may have missed or didn't cover but that they had expected.
When I started a personal website, www.bricklin.com, I added a "History" section covering some of the VisiCalc story.
Eventually, I also added material to address misconceptions people had, such as that an electronic spreadsheet is all about columns and rows like a database (it is not) and showing material I dug up from the old boxes of material saved from grad school and work showing more of the origins.
Throughout this, I learned that people of all sorts like to hear my stories, and like seeing the photos. Old timers like the trip down memory lane. Others identify with the startup narrative. I've found the parts that they usually laugh at, and ones that they find confusing. I also got used to doing it generally all without notes, except for new parts, since the order of the photos guide me along. I also got used to having lots of time to present (college classes are not short, and companies often want something long for their keynote).
Some of these talks made it to the web. One long one was at the 2010 Business of Software conference (90 minutes) and a shorter one at the 2012 StartupFest in Montreal (32 minutes).
This is the story, step by step, of how I turned my long, rambling talk into a short, tight, TEDx Talk with the help of many others.
John Werner is the founder and CEO of TEDxBeaconStreet, and very active in the TEDx movement. Once I said "Yes" in late August 2016, all sorts of emails from him started to appear. The most relevant here were invitations to Speaker Sessions. I attended the September 13th "Orientation/Pitch" session, a little less than 10 weeks before the November 19-20 event. It was held in a room at the MIT Media Lab. (John works at the Media Lab and is also a VP at Augmented Reality startup Meta.)
At the orientation meeting, John explained a lot about TEDx (there are many sessions around the world of affiliated groups) and told us about what our particular event would be like. He explained how, in addition to the speakers, there are a variety of different "catalysts". These are people who facilitate the speakers and the conference. There are "speaker catalysts" who are available to work with us one-on-one to help us craft our talks and the delivery. As motivation, he also explained how TED.com will pick up some of the talks from the TEDx conferences and add them to their site, and that being under 12 minutes is important to that, too, since it appears that people are more likely to choose to watch shorter talks. (For this particular TEDx, 12 minutes was the normal limit, with a timer visible to us as we spoke.) Through TEDx and potentially TED.com, as well as live streaming during the event, our talks would have a much bigger reach than the couple hundred people in the room. We were being given a big stage.
We then took turns as each invited speaker in attendance (or on video conference) gave a few-minute synopsis of their topic. After they spoke, others gave feedback. At this point, most of us had an idea or an existing, longer speech. We did, though, need to figure out how to make it relevant to a TEDx audience, and brief enough for the 12-minute limit.
The speakers were a very eclectic mix. One person had been a prisoner of Somali pirates for 2 1/2 years. Another was Tactical Mission Lead of the Mars Curiosity Rover Flight Team, and needed to adjust her personal life schedule to Mars daylight time (not the same as Earth's) with all of the practical implications that entails.
John had left me freedom to choose whatever I'd want to talk about. I assumed I should just use some variant of what I normally talk about, since I really didn't have time or recent inspiration to come up with anything new. When it came time for me to present, I explained that I could talk about a variety of topics: How VisiCalc came about, what made it special in those days, and my background and how it related to what I did. The feedback, as I remember it, was that people were interested in the process of innovation, and what it was about my background that led to me coming up with the idea and design. This was helpful information.
According to a TEDxBeaconStreet report of the meeting on Medium: "When we asked the audience for comments, a PhD student in the corner raised his hand and said, 'I wrote a paper on you in college...Wow!'" While a treat to hear, this was intimidating since it implied a lot might be expected of my talk, and a reminder of how ancient my work was.
My friend and old cohort, Bob Frankston, was less interested in talking about history and more about his passion for fostering innovation and thoughts on connectivity for his talk, which would be separate from mine. This was a topic he'd been speaking about for the last few years around the world at technical meetings, but could always use an opportunity to hone for a more general audience.
The next month was taken up by the developers' conference for the company where I'm CTO, Alpha Software, as well as another conference out west, and several family and other duties. Finally, on October 10, Bob and I each met with our "speaker catalyst", Mark Connell. Mark asked for an idea of what my "theme" was before meeting, so I wrote this:
"I was thinking of listening to what I heard as feedback at the TEDx meeting I attended last month and cover: The story of VisiCalc, how it came about and what can we learn from it. This includes: What was it about my background, experience, and skills that mattered? What was it about the conditions in technology at the time that mattered? What was it about the formulation of the 'problem I was solving' that mattered? What are some anecdotes about the process Bob and I went through to get it developed and out the door for people to use?"
Meeting at a local restaurant, overlapping a bit with him talking to Bob, we talked at length. Mark had a variety of suggestions. Also, on a telephone call, my older daughter, Rachel, based on her watching of TED talks and using them when teaching, told me that she felt the more focused on one topic the better. I took this to heart.
Over the next week or so, I thought a lot about the talk. I knew that I had to practice it a lot to have a good presentation and say exactly what I wanted. I had always had problems memorizing a speech. (Well, in junior high school, I did memorize the Gettysburg Address, but that's only 3 minutes long and not delivered conversationally with all of the distractions of standing in front of a new, live audience.) For product announcements and other cases, I usually opted to have notes or a transcript in front of me, or, in the case of videos I created, doing many takes. I'd need to have something written soon, and then practice, honing it along the way.
John Werner's boss at Meta, Meron Gribetz, was going to be in town, and John invited me to a party in his honor at a spectacular apartment overlooking the Boston Common. All sorts of TEDx people and others were there. This was getting very real, and my talk wasn't ready.
The following week I was giving a previously scheduled talk to students in Professor Robert Krim's class on managing innovation at Framingham State University. (I know Bob Krim from the days of the Boston History and Innovation Collaborative.) While I would be also giving my full talk, I could start with my short version. This would be a chance to try out my delivery in front of a live audience, and get feedback from a young crowd. This was a deadline to force me to get to an important milestone.
I decided that I'd concentrate on my story. It was the thing that only I knew first-hand. All of my explanations about why VisiCalc and personal computers were special or why the time was right were analysis that many people could make. My story, though, with the material I had, could only come from me. That would make the talk of historical interest and be source material for others to use their own judgement to learn from. Plus, I knew that people enjoyed hearing it.
Part of what I was trying to show was that it was unusual back in 1979 to have the programming background that I had, including experience in building end-user, personal uses of computer power coupled with an exposure to the needs of regular business people. Affordable personal computers were also just coming to the mass market. It wasn't that I was a better programmer or designer than others, but rather that I was the right person, with the right background and skills, at the right time for what I built. I would show that background and the many of the threads that came together to eventually be VisiCalc. Perhaps that could help others figure out how to foster such situations or identify how they could use their own skills and backgrounds, not just feeling that they could never rise to such heights.
I finally got time to write a first draft of my talk. As I wrote every few paragraphs, I'd time reading it to see if the whole thing was short enough. I also put together a series of photos from my slide show that I could present. I spent a lot of time finding some new photos to go with my words to illustrate the points.
I chose material that specifically added information that would be relevant to differentiating my background from others. I dropped other stories even though they were interesting or redundant. I tried to explain things that would not be clear to people without a technical background or without memory of the conditions at the time. I left in items that were echos of each other, such as the repeated references to Multics. I chose photos that related to points, sometimes using ones I've shown for years, other times tracking down or creating additional ones. I even showed some less-than-flattering photos of the younger me to help humanize the journey.
I met with Mark again a few days before I was to present. I told him that I decided to just tell a small part of the VisiCalc story. As he suggested, I'd start with an answer to the question "Why does the spreadsheet matter?" emphasizing Apple, which people today know and care about. Also as he suggested, I made sure to include a design issue and how I solved it. (Mark felt it was important to give the audience a problem to think about and then show a solution.)
He read my draft and gave me more comments. I modified the talk based on those. For the next few days, I practiced and practiced.
Each time I tried giving the talk, either from memory, or with a draft in my hand, I'd note any changes in wording that would come out of my mouth. If I felt those were better, I'd change the draft. It really ended up more a transcript than a script. As I practiced, I found more and more material to cut out (sadly) in order to keep the time down, since actually delivering a talk with audience reaction and switching slides can take longer than just reading it out loud.
Finally, it was time to give the speech in front of a real, live audience. I explained to the college class what I was about to do, and set up my tiny GoPro Hero Session video camera on a tiny tripod to record my presentation and the feedback. (The tiny camera, with its very wide-angle view, is great for such situations.) I put up the first photo, started a timer on my iPhone, and began talking. I had my script with me, and referred to it when necessary, reading a lot more than would be acceptable at TEDx (and it showed). There were lots of "ums" and "ahs" as I struggled to keep to the script.
It took 14 minutes and 50 seconds. Too long.
I asked for feedback. Was it interesting? Some people nodded their heads to say that it was. I asked "What was it that was good?" One student said there were a lot of slides but that I worked them in well. He said he'd seen lots of TED Talks and it sounded and looked like one. Another student pointed out that she remembered TED Talks as being more conversational (i.e., not being read) but liked the times when I was engaging and used humor.
I then asked "What could I take out?" One person tried to figure out superfluous slides. Another person said to start with a question, like "How many of you have used this?" with a screen shot of Excel, rather than just showing my father's hand-done spreadsheet, in order to engage the audience. All agreed that it helped to see a paper spreadsheet.
Then I asked "What questions does this bring up that I didn't answer?" In addition to what happened after we shipped (which was not to be in the talk, but that I would cover for them in a few minutes when I gave a more full presentation), there was a question of how the program was provided -- in addition to the instruction book "did you have to type it in yourself?" It wasn't obvious in my photos that it came on a floppy disk and they were too young to remember doing it that way. We discussed that, and the student thought that others might understand, but I told them "The audience is you" and their comments really mattered, noting to change the contrast on one photo and add an additional one I had showing the floppy.
As you can see in the final result, I incorporated all of these comments into the talk.
Then came a really important comment: When I discussed the figuring out of the use of a grid, I just described everything verbally as I always had, gesturing with my hands in the air. It was unclear exactly what I meant. There needed to be slides illustrating this. We all discussed this issue, and I explained how important this concept was. One person cautioned me, though, about using slides because using your hands is more engaging with the audience. Another suggested a series of slides showing the different steps rather than just pointing to parts of a single slide.
I then asked about different parts that I was considering removing: Did they add anything? One person suggested cutting down some of the "before I did VisiCalc" material. We went through them: Out went a photo of a PDP-8 illustrating an "inexpensive" computer of the old days that I had spent a lot of time tracking down. Out went details of how hard it was to get computer time in the 1960's. According to one student, the photo I had of the mastheads of three newspapers didn't work but it would be nice to see a full front page. The example of using VisiCalc for my homework worked for them. I explained that Mark had pointed out I should say that this example showed that you don't have to have something fully working to be able to be useful -- an important lesson. I told them that I wanted to get across the ideas of prototyping. We talked about the concept they had been studying of the "minimal viable product". "Who would have thought that a minimal viable product wouldn't have divide working, or save and load, and printing?" I noted.
The next day I was at a meeting at my job at Alpha Software and presented the talk to the several people there -- a much older crowd who remembered those old days. More feedback and practice. I'd try reciting the talk from memory while I drove and while I exercised, running near my home.
Over the next few days, I watched the video I took at the FSU class, and made changes to my talk based on the feedback. (Boy, is it helpful to have a recording of what people told you!) When I converted it all to PowerPoint, I added a series of slides to illustrate the switching to a grid. I contacted a newspaper to get access to and permission to use a particular front page of an edition that I had actually been actively involved with (the printing of transcripts of the Nixon Watergate tapes at the Kansas City Star).
Cutting down the time continued to be an issue. The potential of being on TED.com that John dangled in front of us was a good motivator. I also wanted to make sure that I got the right ideas across.
Here's where my experience with Twitter paid off. (I've been using Twitter as @DanB since 2007.) Twitter forces you to learn how to pare down an idea to its essence yet still be understandable. I used those skills over and over again on each sentence. This was coupled with practicing and changing the draft to be what I say most naturally when not reading and also learning to say the short version smoothly. Some concepts, when said in few words, felt like minor tongue-twisters, like "the many motorized blackboards". Turning multiple sentences into simple phrases in a single sentence helped cut lots of time (the seconds add up), but made it harder to remember and speak smoothly.
The TEDx people continued to have sessions you could attend to present and get critiques. These are highly recommended. I signed up for the evening of November 7th. Here's where the TEDx people could see if you were ready or not. Here's where there were multiple speaker catalysts to give feedback.
I finally had the PowerPoint ready enough. I found an old remote "clicker" on a shelf in my office to practice with since I wasn't used to one. That night, Bob Frankston and I drove together, stopping for pizza on the way. I'm compulsively practicing and timing.
I finally get to give my talk. This time I record the comments in the room on my iPhone with Voice Recorder. John asks what I'm feeling good about and what I'm wondering about. I said, with disappointment, I'm 35 seconds over where they want me to be. (And this is without any time audience reaction or clicker delay would cost -- everything adds up.) To answer his question, I'm wondering how the delivery was perceived, does it work? Did I answer the question I heard from people at our first meeting: Why me -- what was special about my background?
A question from someone: Were there technical problems? "Of course," I answered. There were many, but those dropped out for time reasons. That's why my normal talk is often 45 minutes. Another person commented: "The pictures from the past were excellent, that's what kept me riveted." They liked the old pictures of me -- not something I should cut too much. Another liked the mention of Woodstock to place this in historical context in time -- more not to cut. "However," they asked, "why is this a TED talk and not just an interesting biography? What insight I can use? Give me an 'If you do this then you can change the world', 'What did I learn?' Explain more about the grid and its benefits." Another liked how I had old material like my notes from the old days, but wanted to know "the second story -- what happened after". Another asked for a call to action. Another liked seeing how the process of innovation is the same today as it was 35 years ago. They also pointed out how I needed to crop out some distracting material visible in one of the slides.
Lots to add, little to cut. This is like creating a product: What should be in, and what should be better left out?
I then moved into another room to meet with some of the people. We talked for a long time about my talk and another one, especially trying to figure out how to put in a call to action and something to learn.
TEDx was now less than two weeks away.
I added a whole section to the talk about the concept of prototyping. This gave me something to teach that I strongly believe in. It also gave me a stronger call to action at the end. And finally, it let me give my late father additional credit he deserved for teaching me so much. I remember specifically the day he showed me his new copier and how he used it to create very realistic mockups for his customers. We did indeed discuss how it helped ensure there were fewer misunderstandings with the customer about how the final product would look. I also remember him teaching me related ideas when we built a go-cart in the basement. (He had a degree in mechanical engineering, though he entered the family printing business, dropping out of grad school under pressure from his parents. My parents made sure that I didn't have such pressure.)
From then on, it was just practice, tweak the words, practice, tweak the words, ..., and, oh, yes, do my normal day job, for the next several days. It is so hard to be smooth and fluent yet still speak fast enough. A word I'd say naturally was not always the right one for meaning. Some mistakes I just couldn't get over, making them the majority of times I'd practice.
Finally, the TEDx weekend arrived. The first day, Bob and I received the award from John on stage. He even had an old Apple II to show everybody. That was quite nice and also quite easy. I listened to some of the other talks, was interviewed by the sponsor, Liberty Mutual, for some internal use, and did another run through with Mark and some other catalysts. They had some useful comments (not all consistent with each other), but it was too late. I really couldn't make any changes if I wanted to sound natural.
The next day, I had family and good friends in the audience. A TEDx person put makeup on my face. I watched some of the talks before mine. The last I saw was an incredibly emotional, polished talk by Robert Cocuzzo about tracking the life of his skiing hero, Doug Coombs. The bar was very high. Gulp! I waited back stage for my turn, then out I went.
It was tough, as expected. A different first slide came up than I expected, so I had to back it up before I started. I made a few mistakes, but generally did it as I hoped. The audience seemed engaged enough. Finally, as I showed the plaque in my old HBS classroom, the audience burst into applause. I was totally taken aback. Showing that honor in a slide is a bit embarrassing, but makes a great end of an arc in the story. I did not expect such strong approval and empathy. It took me a few seconds to recover and switch to my closing sentence.
After I got off the stage, I heard someone tell me "2 seconds under!" Yessss!
I spent the rest of the day at the event doing some interviews and sitting for photos that are part of being a speaker. I also listened to a variety of other talks, including Bob Franskston's late in the day.
Eventually, an edited version of the talk went up on the TEDx YouTube channel. Finally, in the first week of January 2017, I received notice that my talk would be posted on TED.com. Yay!!! And with regards to some of my mistakes and hesitations, as they say, "they fixed it in post", removing them and cutting the time down even a bit more in their edit of the original recordings. With the TED introduction it comes in at exactly 12:00.
As the final part of this journey to getting on TED.com, I decided to write this essay to help me remember it and share it with any others that care.
Some additional details related to timecodes in the video ("footnotes")
0:55: These quotes from Steve Jobs come from a long, wonderful interview available from WGBH.org: "05/14/1990 Interview with Apple and NeXT co-founder Steve Jobs". Here are the full quotes from the transcript listed with it. (Steve remembers the year of VisiCalc wrong, and his reason was only one of the reasons the Apple II was chosen first.)
There have been, if you look at why the majority of people have bought these things so far, ah there have been two real explosions that have propelled the industry forward. The first one ah really happened in 1977. And it was the spreadsheets. I remember when ah Dan Fylstra who ran the company that marketed the first spreadsheet, walked not my office at Apple one day and pulled out this disk from his vest pocket and said, "I...I have this incredible new program. I call it a visual calculator." And it became Visicalc. And that's what really drove, propelled the Apple to...to the success it achieved more than any other single event.
And...and with ah the invention of Lotus 123, and I think it was 1982, that's what really propelled the IBM PC to the level of success that it achieved. So that was the first explosion was the spreadsheet. Ahm the second major explosion has driven our, the desktop industry has been desktop publishing.
Disk drive was crucial. Ah one of the things that people forget when they think about...about Apple and the Apple II in particular was that we were the first company to come out with a reliable, inexpensive floppy disk drive. And we had a low cost floppy disk drive that really worked about two to three years before any of our competitors. And that was an incredibly important reason why the Apple II was successful. A matter of fact, ah there were a few others.
The Apple II could hold up to 48 kilobytes of memory which today doesn't seem like much, but at that time was maybe three times as much as its competitors. And that's why Visicalc was written for the Apple II. It was the only computer that could hold it. And so if Visicalc had been written for some other computer you'd be interviewing somebody else right now. And it was because of that design decision and other design decisions like it that the Apple II really beat its competition.
1:40: This photo is from the 1969 NASA-NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) Youth Science Congress at Goddard Space Flight Center. I was presenting my pre-processor for FORTRAN, which I called WHARTFOR after the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania where I worked after school hours in 11th and 12th grade and where I developed it. (Notice that the jacket and tie I'm wearing is the same as in the 1966 photo.) We typed our programs onto cardboard punched cards in those days, carrying around boxes of cards instead of flash drives. Each card held about 80 bytes.
1:52: Information about Multics can be found on the Multicians website.
2:21: At DEC I worked on Typeset-10 (a system running on DEC's large PDP-10 timesharing system used at a few major newspapers), the VT-71 terminal (LSI-11 microprocessor with memory-mapped display and software-defined characters -- I helped program the microcode for the display processor), and the WPS-8 Word Processing System (I was the main author of the Functional Spec and had the title "project leader" of the software).
2:31: This is a photo of my maternal grandfather's typewriter on which I learned to type in grade school. He was a newspaper reporter and then editor. The punched card sorter he showed me that his paper used for subscription records was the first computer hardware I encountered, inspiring me to build a simple version as a science fair project a couple of years later.
3:11: The company was FasFax Corporation. The photo is of a later model than the one I worked with.
3:41: The photo was from when we did a case about the pocket calculator market. I brought in an old hand-cranked calculator that I borrowed from my college friend, David P. Reed, an Internet pioneer.
5:11: The photos of the IBM 1403 printer and 029 Card Punch are ones that I took at the Computer History Museum. Both devices are the type I used. They were also the work horses of payroll printing and data entry in those days.
5:17: The photo is of the screen and printer for the DEC WPS-8 system I helped develop.
5:56: This is a simple illustration created for this talk. While the scissors are modern, the tape measure is the actual one my father used. In the actual mockups he made, real copies of typeset proofs were used.
6:11: This is a key point: Prototyping helps you uncover key problems and figure out solutions early in the development process. This is a major theory in Michael Schrage's book, Serious Play. See my review of the book. After VisiCalc (as explained in the longer version of my talk) I wrote Dan Bricklin's Demo Program, a tool for prototyping software. It was an award winning, influential product in the DOS world.
7:56: To save time, I cut out explaining that while maps sometimes use "1A", "1B", etc., and/or have the numbers across the top, I went with the letter first and on the top so that when you typed the computer could distinguish between values (start with a number) and cell addresses (start with a letter). It also let the column headers be narrower ("K" vs. "11", "EA" vs. "131") which mattered on the 40-character wide Apple II screen. Functions needed to be differentiated, so I used the "@" character to indicate them. This made the computer code for parsing the input and doing the display easier and smaller, and the definition easier to explain.
8:12: Some of the added benefits of the grid were pointed out to me by my friend David Reed in an email posted on the "Was VisiCalc the "first" spreadsheet?" page on my website.
8:25: This example is a variant of the main demo I did in the early days of VisiCalc, recreated in Microsoft Excel.
8:34: This is a scan of a state diagram I made very early in the development of VisiCalc. It shows what would happen when you pressed each key. The user interface changed somewhat from this early version, but you can see ideas like "replicate" (which got into the product, now known as "copy" in most spreadsheets) and "help" (which was dropped to save scarce computer memory, hence the importance of the reference card). Interestingly, it is written on the back of a sheet of spreadsheet paper. You can see the blue lines bleeding through. We had that for use in homework when needed.
9:16: Ironically, the "Pepsi Challenge" in real life, not disguised like it is in the case, involved John Sculley. He later left Pepsi to join Steve Jobs at Apple in 1983. For another class, with the professor sworn to secrecy, I wrote a paper for the course about advertising the product. See my blog post about it. This was before the name VisiCalc was chosen. I was using the name "Calcu-ledger" at the time. In that paper I wrote: "Other names that I have thought of, such as 'electronic spreadsheet' or 'calcu-paper' don't sound right, or may not be understood by people, even after they know what it is (not everybody knows what a spreadsheet is, ledger is more common)." The resources of being a student at HBS helped.
10:16: Actually, VisiCalc was announced at the NCC's Personal Computer Festival, a small offshoot of the giant National Computer Conference. It was housed in a hotel down the street from the main venue. VisiCalc was published by Personal Software (a company that later renamed itself to "VisiCorp") which published the product. The software was written by Software Arts, Inc., the company Bob Frankston and I set up.
10:31: This is from page B1 of the June 7, 1979, edition of the New York Times.
10:53: This is slightly inaccurate (to save a few seconds and avoid confusion). I say "about two years" because there were some minor mentions inside a few other articles resulting from PR and other active pushing, but no major discussion of just electronic spreadsheets. The first major business press mention highlighting VisiCalc, as I recall, was a June 29, 1981 Fortune Magazine article on "The Coming Struggle in Personal Computers" by Bro Uttal. The sidebar was about "Software's Greatest Hits" and included VisiCalc, WordStar, DataStar, CP/M, and Microsoft Basic. This was the first professional photoshoot Bob Frankston and I were involved in together. The photo they used has me and Bob sitting on the beanbag chair I sat on when doing the early VisiCalc design. Bill Gates and Paul Allen were shown in the part about their product. Later, the January 3, 1983, Time Magazine "Machine of the Year" (not "person" that year) issue included a sidebar just on VisiCalc.
11:00: I kept a notebook during those days with entries about events related to business and development. This photo shows a notation on October 19, 1979, that Dan Fystra, the head of Personal Software, the publisher, told me he had his first complete, manufactured copy of VisiCalc ready to sell. I remember getting my copy by Fedex Saturday delivery the next day. Dan was heavily involved in the production of VisiCalc, having chosen the name VisiCalc out of all of the alternatives, as well as writing the manual in the package and making other marketing decisions. He was the one who showed Steve Jobs the early copy that Steve mentions in the video.
11:13: There are lots of things I left out. I acknowledge that here to make sure there are no misunderstandings. On the web, I posted a "History" section of my website that goes into more detail of the VisiCalc story. See The Idea and also VisiCalc: Information from its creators, Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston.
- Dan Bricklin, 10 January 2017
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