We have Spreadsheets to thank

Spreadsheets played a huge role in the early days of computing. Experimentation began on “computerized simulations of accounting worksheets” on some mainframe computers in the ‘60s, but it wasn’t until the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that we could get the first spreadsheet program—VisiCalc—on the first personal computers.

As the story goes, once accountants saw what spreadsheets could do, the PC industry sprang to life. As a result, we often call spreadsheet programs the “killer app” of the early days of personal computing.

After VisiCalc came SuperCalc, then Lotus 1-2-3, and finally Excel (to name a few). We all know Excel as part of the Microsoft Office package, which is available for Windows, OS X, and some mobile and online systems. Today, there are many programs that mimic the features of Microsoft Excel, including reading and writing the exact same files. These competitive programs range in price from free to hundreds of dollars, and go by such as names as LibreOffice, OpenOffice, WPS Office, etc. (See Wikipedia for a “Comparison of office suites”.)

What does a spreadsheet program do that makes it so popular?

For those of you not intimately familiar with spreadsheet programs, here’s a gist of what you can do with them:

  • You can enter columns or sheets of information, and sort/filter the data to your heart’s content
  • You can create calculations and “look-up” relationships between cells in the same worksheet or workbook (which is a collection of worksheets)
  • You can then change any of this information and the whole spreadsheet will recalculate based on that new information

Spreadsheets are (arguably) easier to use than databases because all the information (data, calculations, and results) are right in front of you. Calculations can be as simple as “C1 = A1 + B1” … add the first item in column A to column to the first item in column B, and put the result in the first row of column C.

If any of this interests you, get yourself a spreadsheet program and play with it. They all have built-in help screens, plus there is lots of help online by making generous use of search engines.

I like to use spreadsheets to organize lists, calculate gas mileage, and track/balance accounts and expenses. Most spreadsheet programs can then produce charts of all types, based on data in the spreadsheet.