A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge →
I loved this piece, a history of the spreadsheet from Steven Levy originally written in 1984.
It’s a great retrospective that demonstrates how much impact spreadsheets had on business, even though we now consider them a fact of life and a given foundation of working with numbers on computers:
Ezra Gottheil, 34 is the senior product-design planner at Lotus. He shows up for work in casual clothes, and his small office is cluttered with piles of manuals and software. When I visited Gottheil he gave me a quick introduction to electronic speadsheeting. Computer programs are said to use different “metaphors” to organize their task; a program might use the metaphor of a Rolodex, or a file cabinet. When you “boot” almost any spreadsheet program into your personal computer, you see little more than some letters running across the top of the display screen and some numbers running down the side. This serves to indicate the grid of a ledger sheet, the metaphor used by Lotus and other best-selling spreadsheets like VisiCalc, Multiplan, and SuperCalc. The “cursor,” a tiny block of light on the screen that acts like a kind of electronic pencil, can be moved (by a touch of the computer keyboard) to any cell on the spreadsheet in order to “input” numbers or formulas. By placing in the cells either figures of formulas that adjust figures according to different variables, it is possible to duplicate the relationships between various aspects of a business and create a “model.” The basic model for a restaurant, for example, world include expenses such as salaries, food and liquor costs, and mortgage or rent payments; revenues might be broken down into “bar” and “food,” perhaps even further by specific dishes. Every week, the figures would be updated, the formulas reworked if necessary (perhaps the price of the olive oil had risen) and the recalculated model provides an accurate snapshot of the business.
Here we sit 30 years later and the basics of the spreadsheet and fundamental means of interaction have hardly changed.
It’s interesting that now tools like Observable are using some of the same principles of interactivity that we’ve all used in spreadsheets for decades and applying them to code — edit code or data and watch as your output dynamically changes.