Dan Bricklin was a student on a Harvard MBA course who struggled with all the models and calculations that the case studies required. In 1979 he invented the world’s first spreadsheet, Visicalc, in order to make his life easier. Initially Visicalc was available only on the Apple II computer – whose success is largely attributable to this exclusivity.
Bricklin gives an interview in Quartz where he explains the thinking behind his invention.
‘I came out of the word processing and typesetting worlds, where every keystroke counted. I was competing against the back of the envelope. If it took longer to input something on a spreadsheet, you would have done it by hand instead. So I tried to make it as simple and as minimal as possible. It was really important to make it easy to use.
Lots of people were building software for financial forecasting using rows, columns, formulas, and all, but not put together the way the spreadsheet was, aimed for ease of use with a general-purpose, two-dimensional, word-processing-like layout.’
There were many ways that he could have constructed the basic formulas. He could have labelled the variables e.g. Revenue, Costs and Profit and then defined Profit as Revenue minus Costs. Instead he chose a brilliantly simple and effective method – the grid. He defined a value by its place on the grid, so B7 = B3 – B5. See him explain it here in this Tedx talk which is full of wonderful insights for the innovator.