This is a short English-language interview with Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston.
By Joachim Froholt
I wrote a feature on the development of VisiCalc, the first «killer app», a few years ago. While doing that, I got to ask a few questions of the creators of the program, Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston. I decided to publish the Q&A here, in case it could be of use to someone.
What was it like, starting a software company in the late seventies? From what I’ve read on your site, it sounds quite informal – is that correct?
DB: I think that it was for us, but that’s normal in all cases for many startups and not specific to the decade. Once it got bigger, and more money was available from sales, etc., then it became more like a «traditional» company. I’m not sure what you mean, though, about «informal», so maybe I’m missing something.
Did you realize early on that you were working on something that would become influental and important, or did that come as a surprise?
DB: I think that it is very common for many, many projects for the developers to feel that their creation will become important and influential. That’s one of the things that drives you. It was clear to many of us working on getting it out the door that this could be big. But… you have to put that in perspective. Many other things I had worked on seemed that way and didn’t go on to such heights. The ideas may have been before their time, or not in tune with what people really needed, or some other common reason. I felt it could be big, but had the experience with those other things to know that you couldn’t depend on your feelings. We were very lucky that things did indeed turn out so well.
I’ve seen VisiCalc described as the first «killer app» in the computer industry, and even as an invention that can «stand with the printing press, the steam engine, the harnessing of electricity, the developnnent of immunizing agents for virulent diseases» (quote from Al Tommervik). In retrospect, how do you feel about this & the program’s importance?
DB: Very happy! As a child during the 1960’s, the idea of changing the world for the better was something you’d strive for. To actually accomplish it is great. It also takes off any pressure when you wonder whether or not you will accomplish something you can be proud of in life.
Could you explain (without diving too far into the technical details) how the program was developed? At first I thought you wrote it on the Apple II itself, but after having read Implementing VisiCalc, I understand you developed it on a timeshare system instead – how did that work?
BF: At that time an Apple ][ had 16KB of memory – about one billionth the capacity of today’s machines. So instead we paid for time on MIT’s Multics system. As an aside that system was also the prototype for just about all of today’s operating systems with Unix being an offshoot. Later, at software arts, we bought our computing (a Prime) which had a Multics-inspired operating system.
From the same article: «the unrealistic case it would be used to calculate the United States budget. Of course, as it turned out, that was one of the real applications.» – just to make sure I understand, it was actually used by the government of the United States? If so, how did you find out, and how did/do you feel about that?
BF: One reason was that there were no alternatives. But I know of at least one case where a research was asked to give his Apple /// to staffers in DC because it was the highest capacity VisiCalc machine available at the time.
This is a question I also asked Dan Bricklin: I’ve seen VisiCalc described as the first «killer app» in the computer industry, and even as an invention that can «stand with the printing press, the steam engine, the harnessing of electricity, the developnnent of immunizing agents for virulent diseases» (quote from Al Tommervik). In retrospect, how do you feel about this & the program’s importance?
BF: Of course I felt very good about it but it also made me aware of the importance of happenstance such as meeting Dan in the process. VisiCalc happened to be at the leverage point of doing calculations vs. the a more general problem such as word processing. Dan isn’t known for his contributions to word process. Conversely in some ways I’m more proud of my contributions to the Internet (enabling home networking) because that was more intentional yet the press isn’t even aware that someone had to work to make it happen. It may have been too successful in that people assume it was the only possible path. Being in the middle many of the events such as the Multics project has both made me aware of the potential for having impact (and satisfaction that comes from such involvement) but also a sense of how that attention is part of a narrative.
Spillhistorie.no is a Norwegian website mostly dedicated to indie-, niche- and retro games. If you liked this article, we have some more content in English.