Of spreadsheets and the end of the world

by reestheskin on 14/11/2017

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Today (Oct. 17) was International Spreadsheet Day, marking the day back in 1979 that VisiCalc first shipped for the Apple II. Creator Dan Bricklin devised the program originally to help him crunch numbers for an assignment at Harvard Business School. [Link]

I dislike spreadsheets, and think the world will end not in fire, but in one giant bloody spreadsheet (or as a result of one). I also think they are a great metaphor for what is often wrong in medicine: an Excel spreadsheet can calculate a PASI (pissing awful psoriasis index, in lay terms) but it cannot tell you when somebody has bad psoriasis. People get confused about the epistemology here.

But these comments are a little sour. I have never really had to use spreadsheets, instead preferring to use something like R for when I have need of matrices, or when I was really young, FORTRAN. And to be fair even then, I would (now) need to go via a spreadsheet / csv file to enter the data. And this ignores the fact that mostly spreadsheets are used as static tools to present multicoloured tables rather than do calculations. But spreadsheets were, and are, revolutionary. I knew of Dan Bricklin, their inventor, but not all of the following story about how he invented then because he needed them to carry out a set assignment at Harvard Business School

Bricklin knew all this, but he also knew that spreadsheets were needed for the exercise; he wanted an easier way to do them. It occurred to him: why not create the spreadsheets on a microcomputer? Why not design a program that would produce on a computer screen a green, glowing ledger, so that the calculations, as well as the final tabulations, would be visible to the person “crunching” the numbers?

Why not make an electronic spreadsheet, a word processor for figures?

Bricklin’s teachers at Harvard thought he was wasting his time: why would a manager want to do a spreadsheet on one of those “toy” computers? What were secretaries and accountants and the people down in DP for? But Bricklin could not be dissuaded. With a computer programmer friend from MIT named Bob Frankston, he set to work developing the first electronic spreadsheet program. It would be contained on a floppy disk and run on the then brand-new Apple personal computer. Bricklin and Frankson released VisiCalc (the name was derived from Visible Calculation) in late 1979.

There are some general points. Advances are often made by tool makers; and the best fillip for great software is a problem you personally need to solve (a point Paul Graham makes repeatedly). And of course, people who know better, will not think your efforts worthwhile. Little of this is true of hospital information systems.