Any table of numbers is called a spreadsheet. For example, this spreadsheet deals with money:

January February

Income $9,030.95 $12,486.99

Expenses $7,000.55 $9,210.75


Profit $2,030.40 $3,276.24

A spreadsheet can show how many dollars you earned (or spent or plan to spend), how many goods you have in stock, how people scored in a test (or survey or scientific experiment), or any other numbers you wish!

A spreadsheet program helps you create spreadsheets, edit them, and analyze them.


The first spreadsheet program was invented in 1979. It was designed by Dan Bricklin and coded by Bob Frankston. (That means Dan Bricklin decided what features and menus the program should have, and Bob Frankston wrote the program. Dan and Bob worked together closely and occasionally switched roles: Dan sometimes did some coding, and Bob sometimes did some designing.) They called the program Visicalc, because it was a "visible calculator".

The original version of Visicalc ran on the Apple 2 computer and required 64K of RAM. Later versions of Visicalc ran on the Radio Shack TRS-80 and IBM PC.


The next spreadsheet program was called Supercalc because it was superior to Visicalc. It was invented by a company called Sorcim (which is "micros" spelled backwards). Eventually, Sorcim became part of a big conglomerate called Computer Associates.

The original version of Supercalc ran on computers using the CP/M operating system. The most popular CP/M computer ó the Osborne 1 ó came with a free copy of Supercalc.

CP/M computers have become obsolete. New versions of Supercalc have been developed for the Apple 2 and the IBM PC.


The first spreadsheet program to handle multiple spreadsheets simultaneously ó and the relationships between them ó was Multiplan.

Invented by Microsoft, it runs on a greater variety of computers than any other spreadsheet program. Versions of Multiplan have been invented for CP/M computers and also for the Radio Shack TRS-80, Commodore 64, Texas Instruments 99/4, IBM PC, Apple 2, and Apple Macintosh.

Context MBA

The first spreadsheet program that had "extras" was Context MBA, invented in 1981 by Context Management Systems. Besides handling spreadsheets, the program also handled graphs, databases, word processing, and telecommunications.

It ran slowly. Its word processing abilities were severely limited: it couldnít center, and it wouldnít let you set tab stops. The first version used a strange operating system (the PASCAL P System) instead of MS-DOS. An MS-DOS version, called Corporate MBA, didnít come until later. Those problems prevented it from becoming popular.

Lotus 1-2-3

Todayís most popular spreadsheet program was invented in 1983. It was designed by Mitch Kapor and coded by Jonathan Sachs for the IBM PC. They called the program 1-2-3, because it ran fast and was supposed to handle three things: spreadsheets, graphs, and word processing. But when Jonathan examined Context MBA, he realized that putting a good word processor into 1-2-3 would consume too much RAM and make the program run too slowly. He omitted the word processor and replaced it by a stripped-down database processor instead. So 1-2-3 handles spreadsheets (well), graphs (okay), and databases (poorly).

Mitch and Jonathan called their company Lotus Development Corporation, because Mitch was a transcendental-meditation instructor who got entranced by contemplating lotus flowers.

Versions of 1-2-3 The original version of 1-2-3 was called version 1 (or release 1). It required 192K of RAM. Then came fancier versions, called version 1A, version 2, version 2.01, version 2.2, and version 2.3.

The newest popular version is called version 2.4. It lists for $495, but you can get it for just $289 from discount dealers (such as Harmony in New York, phone 800-441-1144 or 718-692-3232). It runs on any IBM PC clone having a hard disk and 384K of RAM. If you want to use version 2.4ís advanced features, you need 512K of RAM. If you donít have a hard disk, get version 2.2 ó or better yet, get a hard disk!

You can also buy a stripped-down version, called the home version, for just $99! Get it from dealers such as PC Connection (phone 800-800-0004).

Lotus has also invented an extra-fancy version called version 3.4A, but itís unpopular because it requires a megabyte of RAM, requires a fancy CPU (286, 386, or 486), is incompatible with some old 1-2-3 routines, temporarily modifies DOS in a way that sometimes causes conflicts with Windows, and costs too much ($595 list, $339 from Harmony).

Lotus has also invented Windows versions, which run more slowly. The newest Windows version is called version 5.


Symphony After inventing 1-2-3, Jonathan Sachs began inventing a program called 1-2-3-4-5. Like Context MBA, it handled five tasks: spreadsheets, graphs, databases, word processing, and telecommunications. While he was developing it, he realized that the program was becoming too large and confusing to be pleasant, so he quit developing it and then quit the company. Other Lotus employees finished that program and renamed it Symphony.

Jonathan was right: the program is too large and confusing to be pleasant, and its word processor is awful. Most businesses buy just 1-2-3 instead.

Changed leadership Like Jonathan, Mitch began feeling that Lotus Development Corporation and its products were becoming too big and confusing, so Mitch quit too.

Afterwards, Lotus Development Corporation was run by Jim Manzi. He was young, rich, vain, egotistical, and nasty. The rest of the computer industry hated him, though his employees were nice.

Finally, Jim Manzi sold Lotus to IBM, which gave lots of money to him (and the other shareholders and employees). Then he quit, a rich man!

Cheap clones

To save money, you can buy a cheap imitations of 1-2-3. The cheap imitations are called 1-2-3 clones or 1-2-3 twins.

The first 1-2-3 twins were The Twin (published by Mosaic Software) and VP-Planner (published by Paperback Software). Lotus sued both of those publishers and put them out of business.

The only 1-2-3 clone that remains is called As-Easy-As because itís as easy as 1-2-3! Since itís shareware, you can copy it free from your friends or your local computer club; if you like it, youíre encouraged to mail a $50 donation to the author.

Appleís influence

In 1983 ó the same year that Lotus invented 1-2-3 ó Apple invented Lisa Calc. It was the first spreadsheet program to use a mouse. It ran just on the Lisa computer, which was expensive ($8,000).

When Apple began selling the Macintosh computer the next year (1984), Microsoft began selling Multiplan for the Mac, which ran on the Mac and combined the best features of Multiplan and Lisa Calc.

Excel The next year, 1985, Microsoft invented a further improvement, called Excel because itís excellent. Like 1-2-3, Excel handles spreadsheets, graphs, and databases.

Apple wanted to sue Microsoft for inventing the Windows operating system, which makes the IBM PC resemble a Mac. To avoid the suit, Microsoft agreed to put Excel only on the Mac for a year. Exactly one year later, when that agreement expired, Microsoft put Excel on the IBM PC.

So now Excel runs on both the Mac and the IBM PC. Each version lists for $495 ($295 at discount).

The newest IBM version is called Excel 97. It requires that you buy Windows 95.

Excelís dead competitors Several companies tried to compete against Excel; but when Microsoft kept improving Excel so dramatically, those competitors gave up trying to sell their spreadsheets. Excel won!

The spreadsheets that lost were Wingz (published by Informix) and Resolve (published by Claris, which is a software company owned by Apple).


Appleworks In 1983 ó the year of Lotus 1-2-3 and Lisa Calc ó Apple invented a program called Appleworks. It was a primitive, mouseless program that ran on the Apple 2 computer and handled three tasks: spreadsheets, databases, and word processing.

Although Appleworks was originally published by Apple, now itís published by Appleís spin-off company, Claris. The current version, Appleworks 3, lists for $249 ($170 at discount).

Claris also publishes a program called Appleworks GS, which is quite different. Designed by Kevin Harvey, it requires an Apple 2GS, uses a mouse, and handles 7 tasks: spreadsheets, graphs, databases, word processing, telecommunications, graphic painting, and desktop publishing. It lists for $299 ($200 at discount).


The newest great spreadsheet program is called Quattro, because itís what comes after 1-2-3. It was invented by Borland.

After inventing Quattro, Borland invented an improved version called Quattro Pro. It combined the best features of 1-2-3 and Excel. Then came further improvements, called Quattro Pro 2, Quattro Pro 3, Quattro Pro 4, and Quattro Pro 5.

In 1991, Borland invented Quattro Pro Special Edition (Quattro Pro SE). Itís a stripped-down version of Quattro Pro 3.

Prices have dropped. Now discount dealers (such as Egghead) sell Quattro Pro 5 for just $40; and while supplies last, you can get Quattro Pro SE for just $16 (plus shipping) from a liquidator called Surplus Software in Oregon (phone 800-753-7877 or 503-386-1375).

In 1994, Borland sold all Quattro rights to another company, Novell. Later, Novell sold Quattro Pro to Corel.

What to buy

If you have an Apple 2GS, get Appleworks GS. If you have a different Apple 2, get Appleworks 3.

If you have a Mac, get Excel.

If you have an IBM PC (or clone), get 1-2-3 version 2.4, 1-2-3 home version, Excel 97, Quattro Pro 5, Quattro Pro SE. 1-2-3 version 2.4 is what most businesses have bought; itís the "standard". If your job requires you to learn 1-2-3 but you canít afford the full version, buy the home version. Of all the spreadsheet programs, Excel 97 is the most modern and most fun; but it requires you to buy Windows 95. Quattro Pro 5 for Windows is similar to Excel; if itís still on sale for $40, grab it! If you donít have enough hardware to run Windows pleasantly (at least a 386 with 4M of RAM), get Quattro Pro 5 for DOS, which has some of the thrills of Quattro Pro 5 for Windows. If youíre on a tight budget, get Quattro Pro SE, since itís available for $16 and is much nicer than cheap clones such as Twin, VP-Planner, and As-Easy-As.