Dan Bricklin and the Cold Comfort of Experience

I saw Dan Bricklin, inventor of the first PC spreadsheet program VisiCalc, at the NY Tech Meetup last night. The opening acts were some machine vision and robotics researchers from NYU and Columbia showing their new work to a big but under-charmed crowd. Things ran late, and then proto-blogger Anil Dash gave some admiring introductory remarks and brought out Dan.


Dan brought out his new book, Bricklin on Technology, a compilation of his blogs, podcasts and essays over the last decade.

He read from the book — from his old blog posts — and illustrated his talk with pictures from the East Coast birthplace of computing around Route 128 near Boston back in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Dan unrolled ancient scrolls from the before-time: DEC minicomputers, dumb terminals, the Apple II, the revolutionary Harris 2200 page layout machine, the first IBM PC and some promo videos for spreadsheet programs that eclipsed VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel. The audience roared at the 1980s dweebs in three piece suits dancing to a pre-Windows jingle as Dan told about inventing the spreadsheet in a wet basement in Massachusetts. In the background were Gates and Jobs but also the armies of hopeful start-ups, brilliant programmers, careful CFOs, lucky salesmen and visionary inventors who drove computing onto every desk and into every home in those years.

Dan’s been there and done that. While he prototyped his great invention
on a minicomputer and coded it for MS-DOS and cashed out before
Windows, he got back up on the horse and founded Slate, an early
tablet computer start-up, and Trellix, an early blog-enabling firm.
Last night, he mused about new opportunities in gesture interfaces, multi-user networked apps and the future of mobile computing.

Throughout his talk, Dan would mention some tech — like the 2200 — and ask the audience if they’d ever heard of it. Response there was none. The mixed crowd of greybeard engineers, grasping entrepreneurs and biz dev naifs knew little about the roots of the industry that they serve. For them, the world was born with Windows 95 or Netscape or Google or Facebook or the iPhone.

I’ve always felt that that reaction was fine. I’ve always tried to avoid chewing the fat with old-timers about punched cards, mag tape and the good old days of Atex and Wang. Whatever nostalgia buzz you get, it’s irrelevant that a terrabyte used to be unthinkable and that a computer used to cost more than a BMW. We’re all going to live in the future where none of that old junk matters.

And yet.  Humans have been crafting tools since the beginning, and there’s a lot we can learn from the way we did things in the past. (Those who’ve never read Santayana are doomed to repeat him.) The iPhone didn’t spring fully formed from the head of Zeus, it’s the evolution of a lot of ideas that have been rattling around for forty or fifty years.

But it’s hard to see the big picture when you’re struggling in the day-to-day and your head is too full of what is rather than what could be. Friday’s payroll or the next quarter or your investors’ liquidity event is a mere milestone on a long path. Folks like Dan remind us that it’s not whether you make Gates money or Jobs money or Page/Brin money, it’s what you invent, what you build and what you leave behind.

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