Dan Bricklin's Web Site: www.bricklin.com
Here are copies of email conversations with some students.
Every once in a while I receive email from a student doing a research paper for school who got me as the obscure technologist to write about. I rarely get to respond to these requests since they do take up a lot of time and the answers are already in some article somewhere or on my web site -- or they are so difficult it would take me an hour to think and answer them well, or they are too personal for such a use.
This time was different. I received an email from the daughter of one of my cousins, a person I know. She had a college paper for a computer course and got permission to use an interview with me. Her email I'd answer. With her permission, I'm posting the questions and answers here in the hope that it might help someone else.
(Remember, these are quick, email answers for a paper, not heavily contemplated responses for a major historical work.)
1. How and when did you become interested in computers?
I first got interested in computers as a child in the 1950's and 1960's. I was interested in electronics, and read Popular Electronics magazine (started by Ziff -- of Ziff-Davis -- who later owned PC Magazine, etc., and which in the 1970's had a cover that inspired Bill Gates and Paul Allen). I went from radios and stuff into wanting to make a computer, even making a punched card reader for a science fair in 6th grade. In the beginning of 10th grade (1966) I learned to program and stayed with that.
2. How much had you programmed before VisiCalc? How did you know where to begin? What made you decide to create VisiCalc?
I was a self-taught programmer for the first year and then took a National Science Foundation summer course in computer programming at the Moore School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1967 (down the hall from where Eniac was built). The following winter I got a job programming and helping students with their computer homework at the Wharton School at U of P from the head of the summer course, Dan Ashler. I kept that job until I graduated high school a year and a half later. The VisiCalc story is in my History section.
3. What was the most challenging part of writing VisiCalc and why? (ie, the existing technology, hardware, languages (what language was it written in?), etc.)
I felt that I was competing with the back of an envelope calculation. It had to be real easy to use and easy enough to use the first time you did a calculation not just when you wanted a recalculation. So, the user interface was the challenge. Then specifying what features to leave out so it would fit on the computers available (the Apple II PC with only 48KB of memory and no swapping from diskette). My partner, Bob Frankston, who had been programming even longer than I had did most of the actual coding. I wrote the prototype in Basic, he wrote the final in assembler.
4. How have the challenges you faced in writing programs changed? Is it more difficult to write programs now that the technology is more advanced?
It used to be that computers were used to make impossible things possible (to quote David Liddle of Interval Research). Now we try to make things not just possible but even easy or almost invisible, so the user design is even more important. The stakes are higher financially and the business models behind what you do matter more. We always push whatever technology we have so advances don't buy you much -- it's always hard work since you do more if you can.
5. I read an article that mentioned that VisiCalc takes up the same amount of memory as one line in a word processing document -- why is that? Are programs really that more intricate now? What is the difference between the programs?
VisiCalc took up as much space as a "picture" does today (less than 30KB). The user interface and error checking and documentation functions make the programs so much larger today. We also do so many more functions. The code today's compilers produce is quite good, so you can't blame that (compiled code vs. hand assembler) for much of the size increase.
6. How do you feel VisiCalc changed the computer industry? I've read articles that call you and Bob Frankston the "fathers of the personal computer revolution." How do you feel about this? Do you feel that our society would depend on computers as much if it were not for VisiCalc's influence?
As I understand it, and show on the "Was VisiCalc the first spreadsheet?" page, various people were introduced to the possibilities of personal computers by VisiCalc. As such it was a real catalyst to starting the PC revolution (or is it "the personal use of computers revolution?"). It's embarrassing to be called the "fathers" but it sure makes it easier when you wonder if you'll ever do anything useful with your life knowing that people feel you have. I leave it to historians to judge the impact.
6. How did the process of writing Textscape (and Dan Bricklin's Overall Viewer, and Dan Bricklin's Demo II...) differ from that of writing VisiCalc? Does writing programs such as these generally take longer now, or then, or does it take about the same time?
(You mean "Trellix" -- Textscape was an early codename that appeared in one or two articles.) The difference today is that people already have personal computers. We don't have to give them reasons to buy. We can take advantage of new technologies and capabilities of PCs, like graphics, the Internet, and more. Programming takes whatever amount of time you schedule it for (though often a bit more). If you have more time you can do more. VisiCalc took a year from prototype to ship. OverAll took a year. Demo II took a year. Trellix took a year or so. Not much change.
I found this question and answer to an email from another college student a while back:
...In my computer class I was assigned to pick someone's name from a list of people that are related to the computer area. I picked your name...But, what was life like when you were developing this for the PC. Did other people get mad at you for what you were trying to create or were people okay with it. I just need some interesting facts and I saw that I could contact you so I thought that would look great on my BIB, and also I would like to have talked with the person I am doing a report about. Everyone else's people have already passed on and so I guess I am lucky that I can still talk with mine.
My answer in a quick email from the road (while covering the Digital Storytelling Festival):
I'm glad I'm still around, too... Who were the dead people?
People were OK about it while I was developing it, but most didn't care. PC's were viewed as toys back then and most stories about PCs were humorous (in hind sight, they were naive about what was about to happen, which is one reason the press has been all over Internet stuff to not miss this one, either, since the Web). Having been in computers for a while at that point, I was used to the indifference. My computer friends were supportive, as were most of my professors.
© Copyright 1999-2010 by Daniel Bricklin
All Rights Reserved.