Steven Levy in 1984 on the Invention of the Electronic Spreadsheet

Spreadsheet_1984As Dan Bricklin remembers it, the idea first came to him in the spring of 1978 while he was sitting in a classroom at the Harvard Business School. It was the kind of idea—so obvious, so right— that made him immediately wonder why no one else had thought of it. And yet it was no accident that this breakthrough should have been his.

Bricklin had graduated from MIT, where—and this is crucial to the idea he would have that afternoon in 1978— he had worked intimately with computers. Before deciding to go to graduate school he had worked for two major computer companies— first for Wang, then for the Digital Equipment Corporation, for whom he helped design a word-processing program. Like most Harvard MBA candidates, he wanted to be a businessman; but more often than not, his thoughts strayed to the technological.

The question Bricklin was pondering that day in 1978 concerned how he might use what he knew about computers to help him in his finance course. This was the assignment: he and several other students had been asked to project the complicated financial implications- the shift in numbers and dollars, and the shifts resulting from these shifts- of one company’s acquisition of another.

Bricklin and his classmates would need ledger sheets, often called spreadsheets. Only by painstakingly filling in the pale green grids of the spreadsheets would they get an accurate picture of the merger and its consequences. A row on the ledger might represent an expense of a category of revenue; a column might represent a specific period of time – a day, a month, a year. Run your finger across, say, a row of figures representing mortgage payments for a certain property, and the number in each “cell” of the horizontal row would be the figure paid in the time period represented by that particular vertical column. Somewhere on the sheet the columns and rows would be tallied, and that information would be entered on even larger sheets.

The problem with ledger sheets was that if one monthly expense went up or down, everything – everything – had to be recalculated. It was a tedious task, and few people who earned their MBAs at Harvard expected to work with spreadsheets very much. Making spreadsheets, however necessary, was a dull chore best left to accountants, junior analysts, or secretaries. As for sophisticated “modeling” tasks – which, among other things, enable executives to project costs for their companies – these tasks could be done only on big mainframe computers by the data-processing people who worked for the companies Harvard MBAs managed.

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?

Source: A Spreadheet Way of Knowledge

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NASDAQ Ends Above 5000 for First Time Since Dot-Com Era

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Wall Street Journal:

The Nasdaq’s march back up to 5000 has been slow but steady, driven by growth in earnings and dividend payments of its companies. Although the index’s rise is nowhere near as rapid as it was in 2000, its gains are viewed as likely less ephemeral and bearing less risk for shareholders. Nasdaq companies collectively fetched 189.75 times their earnings over the previous year in March 2000, according to Nasdaq—versus 31.96 today.

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A Brief Visual History of American Innovations

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In a series of papers studying the history of American innovation, Packalen and Bhattacharya indexed every one-word, two-word, and three-word phrase that appeared in more than 4 million patent texts in the last 175 years. To focus their search on truly new concepts, they recorded the year those phrases first appeared in a patent. Finally, they ranked each concept’s popularity based on how many times it reappeared in later patents. Essentially, they trawled the billion-word literature of patents to document the birth-year and the lifespan of American concepts, from “plastic” to “world wide web” and “instant messaging.”

Sources: Derek Thompson, “‘From Atoms to Bits’: A Brilliant Visual History of American Ideas“;  Mikko Packalen, Jay Bhattacharya, “New Ideas in Invention

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Big Data at the USDA 1915-2015

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Google Maps Mapping the World 2005-2015

Google Maps, February 8, 2005

Google Maps, February 8, 2005

Liz Gannes in re/code:

Ten years ago today, Google Maps launched to the world.

When it was born, it was a paper atlas in living form, with no pages to turn. Instead of online mapping leader MapQuest’s printable list of directions, navigation routes were overlaid on top of the map itself. And Google Maps loaded map tiles in a Web browser without any special software so you could explore the world without refreshing, a technical feat that had never been seen before.

In 2005, nobody really knew what would come of online maps, or how they would become such a crucial aspect of daily lives in the Internet-connected world.

An early Street View van

An early Street View van

How Google would partner with Apple to bring online maps to their true home, smartphones, but the alliance would fall apart.

How Google Maps would have more than a billion users and become Google’s second-largest property after its search engine.

Nobody had any idea, least of all Google.

From Ten Years of Google Maps, From Slashdot to Ground Truth

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Launching Disruptive ‘Legs’ Technology

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The idea of a computer you could put in your pocket was just science fiction

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1982 advertisement for the TRS-80 Pocket Computer with Isaac Asimov.

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