Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

A First Pre-VisiCalc Attempt at Electronic Spreadsheets

Posted on | May 25, 2017 | No Comments

Computerized spreadsheets were conceived in the early 1960s when Richard Mattessich at the University of California at Berkeley conceptualized the electronic simulation of business accounting techniques in his Simulation of the Firm through a Budget Computer Program (1964). Mattessich envisaged the use of “accounting matrices” to provide a rectangular array of bookkeeping figures that would help analyze a company through numerical modeling. Mattessich’s thinking would predate popular spreadsheet programs like VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, Excel, and Google Sheets.

The development of the first actual computerized spreadsheet was based on an algebraic model written by Mattessich and developed by two of his assistants, Tom Schneider and Paul Zitlau. Together they developed a working prototype using Fortran IV programming language. It contained the basic ingredients for the electronic spreadsheet including the crucial support for individual figures in cells by entire calculative formulas behind each entry.[1]

Mattessich was sanguine on his invention, recognizing that it was a time when computers were being considered for a number of simulation projects, so it was “reasonable to exploit this idea for accounting purposes.”[2] These other projects included the modeling of ecological and weather systems as well as national economies. In fact, Mattissich’s concurrent work on national accounting systems was better received, and his book on the topic became a classic in its own right.[3] Mattessich’s attempts soon fell into obscurity because mainframe technology was not as powerful or as interactive as microprocessor-powered personal computer.

The computer systems of the mid-1960s were not conducive to the type of interactivity that would make spreadsheets so attractive in the 1980s. Computers were big, secluded, and attended to by a slew of programmer acolytes that religiously protected their technological and knowledge domains. They were the domain of the EDP department and removed from all but the highest management by procedures, receptionists, and security precautions.

Computers ran their programs in groups or “batches” of punched cards delivered to highly sequestered data processing centers and the results picked up some time later; sometimes hours, sometimes days. Batch processing was used primarily for payroll, accounts payables, and other accounting processes that could be done on a scheduled basis. The introduction of minicomputers using integrated circuits such as DEC’s PDP-8 meant more companies could afford to have computers, but they did not significantly change their accounting procedures or herald the use of Mattissich’s spreadsheet.

Although the earliest PCs were weaker than their bigger contemporaries, the mainframes, and even the minicomputers, they had several advantages that increased their usefulness. Their main advantage was immediacy; the microcomputer was characterized in part by its accessibility: it was small, relatively cheap, and available via a number of retail outlets. It used a keyboard for human input, a cathode ray monitor to view data, and a newly invented floppy disk for storage.

But just as important was the fact that it bypassed the traditional data processing organization that was constantly striving to keep up with new processing requests. One implication was that frustrated accountants would go out and buy their own computers and software packages over the objections or indifference of the EDP department. It also meant a new flexibility in terms of the speed and amount of information immediately available. Levy recounts the following comments from a Vice-President of Data Processing at Connecticut Mutual who eventually bought one of the earliest microcomputer spreadsheet programs to do his own numerical analyses:

    DP always has more requests than it can handle. There are two kinds of backlog – the obvious one, of things requested, and a hidden one. People say, “I won’t ask for the information because I won’t get it anyway.” When those two guys designed VisiCalc, they opened up a whole new way. We realized that in three or four years, you might as well take your big minicomputer out on a boat and make an anchor out of it. With spreadsheets, a microcomputer gives you more power at a tenth the cost. Now people can do the calculations themselves, and they don’t have to deal with the bureaucracy.[4]

Despite the increasing processing power of the mainframes and minis, and new interactivity due to timesharing and the use of keyboards and cathode ray screens, the use of computerized spreadsheets never increased significantly until the introduction of the personal computer. It was only after the spreadsheet idea was rediscovered in the context of the microprocessing leap made in the next decade that Mattesich’s ideas would be acknowledged.

Notes

[1] Mattessich and Galassi credit assistants Tom Schneider and Paul Zitlau with the development of the first actual computerized spreadsheet based on an algebraic model written by Mattessich. It was reported in “The History of Spreadsheet: From Matrix Accounting to Budget Simulation and Computerization”, a paper presented at the 8th World Congress of Accounting Historians in Madrid, August 2000. See Mattessich, Richard, and Giuseppe Galassi. “History of the Spreadsheet: From Matrix Accounting to Budget Simulation and Computerization.” Accounting and History: A Selection of Papers Presented at the 8th World Congress of Accounting Historians: Madrid-Spain, 19–21 July 2000. Asociación Española de Contabilidad y Administración de Empresas, AECA, 2000.See also George J. Murphy’s “Mattessich, Richard V. (1922-),” in Michael Chatfield and Richard Vangermeersch, eds., The History of Accounting–An International Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing Co., Inc, 1997): 405.
[2] This case of Richard Mattessich developing the first electronic spreadsheets has been made extensively including in “The History of Spreadsheet: From Matrix Accounting to Budget Simulation and Computerization”, a paper presented at the 8th World Congress of Accounting Historians in Madrid, August 2000 by Richard Mattessich and Giuseppe Galassi.
[3] Mattessich’s Accounting and Analytical Methods—Measurement and Projection of Income and Wealth in the Micro and Macro Economy (1964) was published by Irwin and was part of that movement towards national accounting systems. Mattessich, Richard. A later version was published as Accounting and Analytical Methods: Measurement and Projection of Income and Wealth in the Micro- and Macro-Economy. Scholars Book Company, 1977. It was mentioned in Chapter 3: Statistics: the Calculating Governmentality of my PhD dissertation, Symbolic Economies and the Politics of Global Cyberspaces (1993).
[4] Levy, S. (1989) “A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge,” in Computers in the Human Context: Information Technology, Productivity, and People. Tom Forester (ed) Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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