Quartz Obsession


October 17, 2017

A winning formula

Freshen up your formulas and pamper those pivot tables—International Spreadsheet Day is Oct. 17.

On this day in 1979, a computer program called VisiCalc first shipped for the Apple II, marking the birth of the electronic spreadsheet. A few years later, Lotus 1-2-3 for the IBM PC had its moment, and then Microsoft Excel became the dominant spreadsheet program, which it remains today.

The spreadsheet was the original killer app—the thing that convinced many people to buy a computer for the first time. Conceived as a simple scratchpad, the now-ubiquitous tool is used to compile everything from grocery lists to multinational company accounts. Its incredible flexibility makes it both powerful and dangerous, loved and loathed in equal measure.

origin story

Magic powers

Dan Bricklin dreamt up the idea for VisiCalc in 1978, while a student at Harvard Business School. He used an early prototype to ace an assignment about financial projections for a corporate marketing campaign, wowing his class with breadth, depth, and detail that was unusual in the era of hand-held calculators.

Early adopters seemed to possess “magic powers,” Bricklin told Quartz. The spreadsheet quickly became the lingua franca of finance.

Software patents were rare in the 1970s, so VisiCalc relied on trademark and copyright protections to ward off rivals. It didn’t work—copycat programs soon surpassed the original in popularity.

fun fact

Other names the founders of VisiCalc—short for “visible calculator”—considered: Electroledger, Calculedger, Calcupaper, and Compulator.

watch this!

Steve Jobs gives the first spreadsheet program credit for the success of the Apple II, his company’s first mainstream machine.

download this!

The version of VisiCalc released for the IBM PC in 1981 will still run on modern Windows machines. It weighs in at a scant 27.5 kilobytes and can be downloaded here.

hard cell

When the sheet hits the fan

Spreadsheets are easy to make, and even easier to make badly. In one study, researchers at Dartmouth got access to live spreadsheets from a group of companies. Depressingly, they found that only a third were error-free: Many were minor, but some skewed numbers by as much as $100 million. The list of costly Excel-based snafus is long and cringe-worthy. Here are few doozies:

  • The opaque, error-prone system of risk reporting via spreadsheets at JPMorgan allowed a trader known as the “London whale” to rack up more than $6 billion in losses.
  • A spreadsheet formula error led economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff to overstate the effects of government debt in an influential paper used by many to justify austerity policies.
  • A single mistaken cell entry led organizers of London’s 2012 Olympics to overbook the synchronized swimming events by 10,000 tickets.
  • Years of genomics research is riddled with errors because Excel and other popular spreadsheet applications converted some gene symbols to dates and numbers—like turning the gene MARCH1 into “03/01/2016.”
pop quiz

Which of these is not a formula function in Microsoft Excel?

If your inbox doesn’t support this quiz, find the solution at bottom of email.

“Take her back to the crib and spreadsheets / ‘Cuz I Microsoft Excel in the bedsheets”

—lyrics from “Outside” by Rtillery

Art history

Art meets science

Spreadsheets aren’t just for creative accounting. Japanese artist Tatsuo Horiuchi uses the program to draw elaborate landscapes. He explains his technique here, if you read Japanese and have a lot of spare time on your hands.

Another work of spreadsheet art worth checking out is this stop-motion animation of a scene from Super Mario Bros, made from 1,000 screenshots and, as the anonymous uploader puts it, “some hours of work.”

Back to the future

In 1863, Jules Verne wrote Paris in the Twentieth Century , a prescient work of speculative fiction. The dystopian capital he imagined 100 years in the future was in thrall to greedy financiers, all-powerful corporations, and pervasive automation (“machines advantageously replacing human hands”).

Office workers were slaves to calculating machines that “looked rather like huge pianos.” The “Great Ledger,” as he described it, was a sort of steampunk proto-spreadsheet:

“…by operating a sort of keyboard, sums were instantaneously produced, remainders, products, quotients, rules of proportion, calculations of amortization and of interest compounded for infinite periods and at all possible rates. There were high notes which afforded up to one hundred fifty percent!”

person of interest


Every year, students from around the world compete in the Microsoft Office Specialist World Championship. (Yep.) In August, 17-year-old John Dumoulin took home the top prize for Excel mastery, which included $7,000 and an Xbox.

At a hotel in Anaheim, contestants were given a set of challenges—tricky equations, obscure formulas, and the like—to complete in 90 minutes, judged by accuracy and speed. Dumoulin says his spreadsheet skills were honed by tracking baseball stats in his spare time. He’s a big fan of conditional formatting, which “can make your data look very enhanced and eye-catching.”


Level up

Looking to improve your spreadsheet skills? The Corporate Finance Institute highlights 10 advanced Excel formulas “every world class financial analyst must know.” For other tips, MrExcel’s many YouTube videos have been watched more than 8 million times. (Or at least look like you’ve got the skills with this enthusiastic mug.)

If after all that your data analysis needs still aren’t satisfied, Quartz’s Dan Kopf ran down the pros and cons of programming languages you can learn—SAS, Stata, R, Python, and the like—to take things to the next level.

take me down this 🐰 hole!

“A virtual cult of the spreadsheet has formed, complete with gurus and initiates, detailed lore, arcane rituals – and an unshakable belief that the way the world works can be embodied in rows and columns of numbers and formulas.”

Steven Levy, “A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge,” Harper’s, 1984

talk to us

What do you think of spreadsheets?

the fine print

In yesterday’s poll about the kilonova, 84% of you said you were “humbled by the awesomeness of the universe.” 🌠

Today’s email was reported and written by Jason Karaian.

Images: Certiport (Dumoulin)