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A Problem That Changed The World | Dan Bricklin | TEDxBeaconStreet

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    How many of you have used
    an electronic spreadsheet,
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    like Microsoft Excel?
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    Very good.
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    Now, how many of you have run a business
    with a spreadsheet by hand,
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    like my dad did for his small
    printing business in Philadelphia?
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    A lot less.
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    Well, that's the way it was done
    for hundreds of years.
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    In early 1978,
    I started working on an idea
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    that eventually became VisiCalc.
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    And the next year it shipped,
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    running on something new
    called an Apple II personal computer.
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    You could tell that things
    had really changed when, six years later,
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    the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial
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    that assumed you knew what VisiCalc was
    and maybe even were using it.
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    Steve Jobs back in 1990
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    said that "spreadsheets
    propelled the industry forward."
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    "VisiCalc propelled the success of Apple
    more than any other single event."
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    On a more personal note,
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    Steve said, "If VisiCalc had been written
    for some other computer,
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    you'd be interviewing
    somebody else right now."
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    So, VisiCalc was instrumental in getting
    personal computers on business desks.
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    How did it come about?
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    What was it? What did I go through
    to make it be what it was?
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    Well, I first learned to program
    back in 1966, when I was 15 --
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    just a couple months
    after this photo was taken.
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    Few high schoolers had access
    to computers in those days.
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    But through luck
    and an awful lot of perseverance,
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    I was able to get
    computer time around the city.
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    After sleeping in the mud at Woodstock,
    I went off to MIT to go to college,
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    where to make money,
    I worked on the Multics Project.
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    Multics was a trailblazing
    interactive time-sharing system.
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    Have you heard of the Linux
    and Unix operating systems?
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    They came from Multics.
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    I worked on the Multics versions
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    of what are known
    as interpreted computer languages,
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    that are used by people
    in noncomputer fields
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    to do their calculations
    while seated at a computer terminal.
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    After I graduated from MIT,
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    I went to work for
    Digital Equipment Corporation.
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    At DEC, I worked on software
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    for the new area
    of computerized typesetting.
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    I helped newspapers
    replace their reporters' typewriters
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    with computer terminals.
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    I'd write software
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    and then I'd go out in the field
    to places like the Kansas City Star,
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    where I would train users
    and get feedback.
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    This was real-world experience
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    that is quite different
    than what I saw in the lab at MIT.
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    After that, I was project leader
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    of the software for DEC's first
    word processor, again a new field.
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    Like with typesetting, the important thing
    was crafting a user interface
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    that was both natural and efficient
    for noncomputer people to use.
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    After I was at DEC, I went
    to work for a small company
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    that made microprocessor-based electronic
    cash registers for the fast-food industry.
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    But I had always wanted to start
    a company with my friend Bob Frankston
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    that I met on the Multics project at MIT.
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    So I decided to go back to school to learn
    as much as I could about business.
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    And in the fall of 1977,
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    I entered the MBA program
    at Harvard Business School.
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    I was one of the few
    percentage of students
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    who had a background
    in computer programming.
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    There's a picture of me from the yearbook
    sitting in the front row.
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    (Laughter)
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    Now, at Harvard,
    we learned by the case method.
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    We'd do about three cases a day.
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    Cases consist of up to a few dozen pages
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    describing a particular
    business situation.
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    They often have exhibits,
    and exhibits often have words and numbers
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    laid out in ways that make sense
    for the particular situation.
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    They're usually all somewhat different.
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    Here's my homework.
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    Again, numbers, words,
    laid out in ways that made sense.
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    Lots of calculations --
    we got really close to our calculators.
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    In fact, here's my calculator.
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    For Halloween, I went
    dressed up as a calculator.
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    (Laughter)
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    At the beginning of each class,
    the professor would call on somebody
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    to present the case.
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    What they would do is
    they would explain what was going on
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    and then dictate information
    that the professor would transcribe
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    onto the many motorized blackboards
    in the front of the class,
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    and then we'd have a discussion.
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    One of the really frustrating things
    is when you've done all your homework,
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    you come in the next day
    only to find out that you made an error
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    and all of the other numbers
    you did were wrong.
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    And you couldn't participate as well.
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    And we were marked by class participation.
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    So, sitting there with 87 other people
    in the class, I got to daydream a lot.
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    Most programmers in those days
    worked on mainframes,
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    building things like inventory systems,
    payroll systems and bill-paying systems.
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    But I had worked
    on interactive word processing
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    and on-demand personal computation.
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    Instead of thinking
    about paper printouts and punch cards,
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    I imagined a magic blackboard
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    that if you erased one number
    and wrote a new thing in,
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    all of the other numbers
    would automatically change,
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    like word processing with numbers.
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    I imagined that my calculator
    had mouse hardware on the bottom of it
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    and a head-up display,
    like in a fighter plane.
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    And I could type some numbers in,
    and circle it, and press the sum button.
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    And right in the middle of a negotiation
    I'd be able to get the answer.
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    Now I just had to take my fantasy
    and turn it into reality.
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    My father taught me about prototyping.
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    He showed me mock-ups
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    that he'd make to figure out
    the placement on the page
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    for the things for brochures
    that he was printing.
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    And he'd use it
    to get feedback from customers
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    and OKs before he sent the job
    off to the presses.
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    The act of making a simple, working
    version of what you're trying to build
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    forces you to uncover key problems.
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    And it lets you find solutions
    to those problems much less expensively.
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    So I decided to build a prototype.
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    I went to a video terminal
    connected to Harvard's time-sharing system
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    and got to work.
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    One of the first problems
    that I ran into was:
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    How do you represent values in formulas?
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    Let me show you what I mean.
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    I thought that you would point somewhere,
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    type in some words,
    then type in some somewhere else,
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    put in some numbers and some more numbers,
    point where you want the answer.
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    And then point to the first, press minus,
    point to the second,
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    and get the result.
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    The problem was:
    What should I put in the formula?
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    It had to be something
    the computer knew what to put in.
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    And if you looked at the formula,
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    you needed to know
    where on the screen it referred to.
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    So the first thing I thought
    was the programmer way of doing it.
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    The first time you pointed to somewhere,
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    the computer would ask you
    to type in a unique name.
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    It became pretty clear pretty fast
    that that was going to be too tedious.
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    The computer had to automatically
    make up the name and put it inside.
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    So I thought, why not make it be
    the order in which you create them?
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    I tried that. Value 1, value 2.
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    Pretty quickly I saw
    that if you had more than a few values
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    you'd never remember
    on the screen where things were.
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    Then I said, why not instead
    of allowing you to put values anywhere,
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    I'll restrict you to a grid?
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    Then when you pointed to a cell,
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    the computer could put
    the row and column in as a name.
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    And, if I did it like a map and put ABC
    across the top and numbers along the side,
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    if you saw B7 in a formula,
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    you'd know exactly
    where it was on the screen.
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    And if you had to type the formula
    in yourself, you'd know what to do.
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    Restricting you to a grid
    helped solve my problem.
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    It also opened up new capabilities,
    like the ability to have ranges of cells.
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    But it wasn't too restrictive --
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    you could still put any value,
    any formula, in any cell.
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    And that's the way we do it to this day,
    almost 40 years later.
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    My friend Bob and I decided that we were
    going to build this product together.
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    I did more work figuring out exactly
    how the program was supposed to behave.
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    I wrote a reference card
    to act as documentation.
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    It also helped me ensure
    that the user interface I was defining
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    could be explained concisely
    and clearly to regular people.
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    Bob worked in the attic of the apartment
    he rented in Arlington, Massachusetts.
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    This is the inside of the attic.
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    Bob bought time on the MIT Multics System
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    to write computer code
    on a terminal like this.
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    And then he would download test versions
    to a borrowed Apple II
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    over a phone line
    using an acoustic coupler,
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    and then we would test.
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    For one of these tests I prepared
    for this case about the Pepsi Challenge.
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    Print wasn't working yet,
    so I had to copy everything down.
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    Save wasn't working,
    so every time it crashed,
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    I had to type in all of the formulas
    again, over and over again.
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    The next day in class, I raised my hand;
    I got called on, and I presented the case.
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    I did five-year projections.
    I did all sorts of different scenarios.
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    I aced the case.
    VisiCalc was already useful.
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    The professor said, "How did you do it?"
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    Well, I didn't want to tell him
    about our secret program.
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    (Laughter)
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    So I said, "I took this and added this
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    and multiplied by this
    and subtracted that."
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    He said, "Well,
    why didn't you use a ratio?"
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    I said, "Hah! A ratio --
    that wouldn't have been as exact!"
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    What I didn't say was,
    "Divide isn't working yet."
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    (Laughter)
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    Eventually, though,
    we did finish enough of VisiCalc
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    to be able to show it to the public.
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    My dad printed up a sample reference card
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    that we could use as marketing material.
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    In June of 1979, our publisher
    announced VisiCalc to the world,
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    in a small booth at the giant National
    Computer Conference in New York City.
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    The New York Times had
    a humorous article about the conference.
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    "The machines perform
    what seem religious rites ...
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    Even as the believers gather,
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    the painters in the Coliseum sign room
    are adding to the pantheon,
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    carefully lettering 'VISICALC'
    in giant black on yellow.
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    All hail VISICALC!"
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    (Gasp) New York Times:
    "All hail VISICALC."
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    (Laughter)
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    That was the last mention
    of the electronic spreadsheet
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    in the popular business press
    for about two years.
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    Most people didn't get it yet.
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    But some did.
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    In October of 1979, we shipped VisiCalc.
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    It came in packaging
    that looked like this.
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    And it looked like this,
    running on the Apple II.
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    And the rest, as they say, is history.
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    Now, there's an awful lot
    more to this story,
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    but that'll have to wait for another day.
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    One thing, though, Harvard remembers.
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    Here's that classroom.
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    They put up a plaque
    to commemorate what happened there.
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    (Applause)
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    But it also serves as a reminder
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    that you, too, should take
    your unique backgrounds, skills and needs
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    and build prototypes to discover
    and work out the key problems,
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    and through that, change the world.
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    Thank you.
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    (Applause)
Title:
A Problem That Changed The World | Dan Bricklin | TEDxBeaconStreet
Description:

Steve Jobs once told an interviewer that "if VisiCalc had been developed for another computer, you'd be interviewing somebody else." Dan Bricklin wanted to streamline his work at Harvard Business School, and he wound up changing the world of computing forever. Check out this talk to learn what led him to develop his revolutionary tool.

Dan Bricklin is best known for codeveloping VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet, while he was a student at the Harvard Business School. VisiCalc is widely credited for fueling the rapid growth of the personal computer industry. Dan Bricklin is CTO of Alpha Software Corporation. He is also president of Software Garden, Inc., a small consulting firm and developer of software applications that he founded in 1985.

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at http://ted.com/tedx

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDxTalks
Duration:
12:21

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