Saturday, May 12, 2018

Running VisiCalc on FreeDOS

I've demonstrated Borland's Quattro Pro spreadsheet and the shareware As-Easy-As spreadsheet, so I thought I should show the progenitor of DOS spreadsheets: VisiCalc.

You thought I was going to say "Lotus 1-2-3," didn't you? While Lotus 1-2-3 was an important spreadsheet program for DOS, and arguably the "killer app" for MS-DOS, it was not the first spreadsheet for personal computers. That honor belongs to VisiCalc.

You can download a free version of VisiCalc from the VisiCalc website, and access other free resources including a cheat sheet. From the website:

This web site,, includes lots of information about VisiCalc, the first computer spreadsheet program as we know them today. It has material directly from Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, the co-creators of VisiCalc, including scans of original photographs from VisiCalc's development days, a working copy of the program, and other things from Software Arts, Inc., Dan and Bob's company. Additional material is constantly being added, so researchers, computer historians, and teachers should check back periodically.

Dan Bricklin first developed VisiCalc for the Apple II home computer, and later ported to MS-DOS. As the first spreadsheet, it was no-frills. Basically, VisiCalc presented a grid with letters for columns and numbers for rows, and you could enter data in each cell.

VisiCalc lacked certain functions that we find common today. For example, VisiCalc did not have the @RAND function that I used in my As-Easy-As and Quattro Pro examples. So for this simple demonstration, I entered a list of numbers, and used the @SUM function to automatically calculate the list's total value.

Performing these calculations so effortlessly on sets of data immediately set VisiCalc as the "must-have" application for businesses. With a computer-based spreadsheet, workers could perform dependent calculations much more quickly than the same calculations by hand on a paper spreadsheet.

Note the use of ... to specify a range, such as A1...A10. This differed in later DOS spreadsheets, which used .. to indicate a range. Modern spreadsheets use :.

Like other DOS spreadsheets that followed it, VisiCalc used / to access the program's menu. The spreadsheet's commands were represented by single letters, such as B to blank the values from a cell, or M to move a row or column. While this may seem unfriendly at first, frequent users found they learned the keystrokes very quickly.

To exit the program, tap the / key, then S to bring up the storage menu:

…then select the Q (quit) action:

…and finally, confirm the action:

(screenshots are QEMU, resized to 533×400)

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