VisiCalc - The Early Days
by Peter Jennings
On April 8, 2003, Dan Bricklin, Bob Frankston, and Mitch Kapor gathered with Charles Simonyi to speak about the Origins and Impact of VisiCalc. This got me thinking about those early days and my own first encounters with the program.
By the summer of 1978, Microchess was available on all of the popular personal computers of the day, the S-100 bus machines, the TRS-80 and the Commodore PET. Micro-Ware had a booth at PC-78 in Atlantic City and the cassettes were flying off the table. Carl Helmers, editor of Byte Magazine, came by and introduced me to someone I should meet because “we have a lot in common”. This turned out to be Dan Fylstra, at the time, an MBA student at Harvard, a writer for Byte, and a 6800 programmer.
Dan and I had lunch together and he told me about Personal Software, his small company distributing programs for personal computers. He quickly asked if he could add Microchess to the product line. So began my relationship with Personal Software.
Dan and I spent long hours on the phone between Boston and Toronto discussing the future of personal computers, software, and software publishing. Before long we had decided to merge our companies. There would be a combining of assets for shares, and I would receive a royalty for my Microchess.
It was not long after this that Dan told me about Dan Bricklin and his idea for an electronic calculating ledger. It was clearly a revolutionary idea and we knew it would be an important element of our product line. We didn't realize how important until much later. Not long after, I flew down to Boston and met Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin. We went out to a Chinese restaurant and discussed, among other things, possible names for the new product. Visible Calculator was one of the leading options, as was Electronic Ledger, but we finished dinner without having made a decision. We did agree that VisiCalc sounded too much like a vitamin.
In Boston, Dan Fylstra was negotiating a contract with Bricklin and Frankston. After each session, he would call me and we would go over the terms that had been agreed and those that were still on the table. The most contentious issue was the royalty percentage. At that time, there were no standards for what royalty should be paid for software. Dan and I had negotiated the Microchess royalty based on the profit I was making on units shipped by Micro-Ware at the lowest wholesale price, a little over 30%. This was undoubtedly a factor in deciding what royalty Bob and Dan should receive for VisiCalc. The other issue was an advance on royalties to cover some of the development costs. Bob wanted to use a cross-compiler on a timeshare system to do the development using a macro language he had created for the 6502. It was estimated that this would cost $4-5,000 per month. We agreed to cover these costs. But if I received my royalties for Microchess, there would not be sufficient cash flow available. I agreed to postpone the royalties owed to me until the company was in a position to pay them. Thus, in a very real way, Microchess sales helped finance the development of VisiCalc.