A Not-So-Brief History of Everything Spreadsheets

Digital spreadsheets as we know them today have only existed since the late 1970s. But their analog predecessors – pre-modern accounting methods, paper bookkeeping, early mainframe-based calculations, and more – have a history that’s as extensive as it is fascinating. In fact, the history of spreadsheets is so long that it dates back as far as 3200 BC.

At its core, the spreadsheet is the same for the personal budgeter as it is for the financial modeler or project manager: a table consisting of cells with different values, all organized in a system of rows and columns. Whether you use Google Sheets, Excel, Spreadsheet.com, a physical ledger book, or something else, this basic system is what makes a spreadsheet a spreadsheet.

These familiar digital spreadsheets are the conclusion of thousands of years of evolution in record keeping, finance, accounting, mathematics, and computer science.

Read on as we take a not-so-brief ~7000 year journey through the evolution of spreadsheets and learn how they went from a pre-modern accounting method to an essential software tool used by hundreds of millions of people every month.

How the Spreadsheet Got Its Name

The word “spreadsheet” comes from “spread” and “sheet”, a reference to the format of accounting ledgers, a tool that largely gave spreadsheets their familiar row-and-column system.

Before spreadsheets came to dominate the accounting world, bookkeeping ledgers would include calculations “spread” across multiple paper “sheets”. Financial records were organized into columns for categories of expenditures and rows of individual invoices, with payments recorded in cells at each intersection of a column and row.

A ledger book from 1828

Although it was paper ledgers that most directly inspired the term “spreadsheet”, the first ledgers were made up of inscriptions made in stone tablets. It’s with those stone tablets – over 7,000 years ago in Ancient Mesopotamia – that the history of spreadsheets begins.

Part 1: The Birth of Accounting

Up to the invention of digital spreadsheets, the history of spreadsheets is really the history of accounting. The first accounting records – mostly related to crop growth and livestock management – date back approximately 7,000 years to Ancient Mesopotamia. In addition to tracking crops and livestock, Mesopotamians also kept records of goods traded and received, as well as other expenditures.

This financial record keeping led to the development of the first ledger sometime around 3,200 BC. These primitive ledgers tracked goods, represented by pictographs, and quantities sold, represented by holes, with inscriptions on stone tablets partitioned into a series of rows and columns.

An early Mesopotamian ledger inscribed on a stone tablet (Image: British Museum)

Not only are these ledgers the first examples of formal accounting, they’re some of the first examples of written language entirely.

From Mesopotamia through the birth of the Roman Empire in 27 BC, the Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Babylonians further developed these early accounting methods, including inventing a phonetic alphabet, creating systems of auditing, and using taxation in commerce. Across all of these societies, the use of ledgers remained a constant.

Part 2: The Evolution of Accounting

In the Roman Empire, the role of accounting and record keeping of public expenditures and monetary policy grew to prominence under the reign of Emperor Augustus. The importance of public accounting was immortalized in the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, a monumental inscription that is, in part, a ledger recording Augustus’ financial contributions to the empire.

The Monumentum Ancyranum in Ankara, Turkey, where a significant copy of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti is located

For hundreds of years, the Roman government and military kept detailed records of public expenditures, and the use of ledgers and record keeping persisted in private transactions.

Accounting methods remained relatively unchanged until the emergence of double-entry bookkeeping in Florence around the beginning of the 14th century. Double-entry bookkeeping is a two-sided accounting method in which each transaction involves both a debit and a credit, in an effort to “balance” the accounting equation and more easily detect errors and fraud.

Like many other products of Renaissance Europe, double-entry bookkeeping had religious and moral connotations, reflecting judgements of soul and audits of sin. “Accountant” was considered an important role in society, so much so that many paintings from the Renaissance era are dignified portraits of accountants at work.

Jan Provoost’s Death and the Miser (16th century), one of the era’s many artistic depictions of accountants and bookkeepers

The adoption of double-entry bookkeeping is widely considered to be the birth of modern accounting, and the system of debits and credits it ushered in is still widely seen across finance and accounting today.

Part 3: The Birth of Spreadsheets

Accounting remained a solely pen-and-paper endeavor until the invention of digital spreadsheets in the latter half of the 20th century. But the first spreadsheets were nothing like those that we’re used to today.

BSRG | The First Spreadsheet

In 1961, Richard Mattessich outlined the concept of an electronic spreadsheet in his 1961 paper “Budgeting Models and System Stimulation”. The concept that Mattessich outlined wasn’t exactly a primitive version of Excel, but rather a “batch spreadsheet report generator”, or BSRG. In subsequent papers, Mattessich built on his concept to apply computerized spreadsheets to accounting systems by adding or subtracting entire columns or rows of data. Unlike today’s spreadsheets, these systems could not perform calculations at the cell level.

An IBM 1130, the first computer on which BSRG was implemented (Image: Martin Skøtt, via Wikimedia)

In 1962, the BSRG was implemented in an IBM computer as Business Computer Language (BCL), bringing spreadsheets to a wider audience, including students at universities with timesharing computers.

LANPAR | Spreadsheet Calculations Mature

In 1969, almost a decade after the invention of the BSRG, spreadsheets’ calculation abilities took a major leap forward with the invention of the “LANguage for Programming Arrays at Random” software, or LANPAR. LANPAR – based on an algorithm developed by Rene K. Pardo and Remy Landau – allowed spreadsheets to perform cell-level references and calculations, as well as forward referencing and natural order calculation. With LANPAR, spreadsheets could perform omnidirectional calculations and were no longer limited to left-to-right or top-to-bottom calculations.

LANPAR took spreadsheets out of the university and into the corporate world. The software was used by GM, Bell Canada, AT&T, and other telephone companies in the United States.

AutoTab | The Birth of Spreadsheet Formulas

Around the time that LANPAR was introduced, a trio of former GE employees developed a piece of software called AutoTab (or AutoPlan). AutoTab wasn’t an interactive spreadsheet program like LANPAR, but a scripting language that allowed users to define names for rows and columns, and then apply formulas to them. AutoTab was soon followed by other spreadsheet systems and languages from GE (Financial Analysis Language, or FAL) and Oliver Vellacott (TABOL).

IBM and APLDOT | Spreadsheets and Financial Modeling

In the late 1970s, two new spreadsheet programs – the IBM Financial Planning and Control System and APLDOT, developed by the United States Railway Association – enabled industrial-weight financial modeling with spreadsheets. With more serious corporate applications of spreadsheets now enabled, the technology spread further in both the public and private sector, as well as internationally.

An IBM 360/91, the computer on which APLDOT was developed (Image: NASA)
Part 4: The Evolution of Spreadsheets

As personal computers grew in popularity towards the end of the 1970s, spreadsheets made their way from corporate offices into people’s homes.

VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 | The First “Killer Apps”

The first of these consumer-oriented spreadsheet softwares was VisiCalc, available on the Apple II (1979) and IBM PC (1981). VisiCalc combined all of the features of modern spreadsheet applications, like automatic recalculation, formula lines, range copying, and formula building – features that are still hallmarks of spreadsheet software used today.

VisiCalc running on an Apple II

VisiCalc – erroneously heralded as the first electronic spreadsheet at the time – is considered to be the first “killer application” and is partly responsible for the success of the Apple II. VisiCalc was later ported to other computers like the Atari 8-bit family, Commodore platforms, and CP/M, the latter of which had its own spreadsheet application called SuperCalc.

In 1982, a year after VisiCalc was introduced to the IBM PC, it was joined by Lotus 1-2-3, which quickly became the computer’s own “killer app”. Just as VisiCalc did for the Apple II, Lotus 1-2-3 drove sales of the IBM PC. It was later ported to MS-DOS and became the leading spreadsheet software for that platform as well.

Microsoft Excel | A Spreadsheet King Emerges

In 1985, Microsoft released its now-ubiquitous Excel software for the Macintosh, followed by a Windows release two years later. As Windows gained market share in the early 1990s, so did Microsoft Excel, and by 1995 the program was the leader in the spreadsheet software market.

Microsoft Excel 1.5 for Macintosh
Part 5: Spreadsheets Today

As computers and technology have evolved since Excel’s entry into the software market in 1995, so have spreadsheet softwares. The market has grown significantly to include cloud-based products, new desktop-based products, software that’s mobile-compatible, and programs that are geared more towards project management than traditional financial applications.

Today, it’s estimated that somewhere between 750 million and 1 billion people use spreadsheets globally.

Cloud-Based Spreadsheet Software

Like many other popular work tools, today’s most successful spreadsheet softwares have made their transition to the cloud.

Some programs – like Google Sheets and Spreadsheet.com – are entirely web-based and don’t offer desktop installations, leveraging their cloud capabilities to focus on real-time collaboration and extensive sharing options.

Others – like Microsoft Excel and Apple Numbers – have gradually introduced more cloud features and web interfaces over time, but still keep one foot planted in the world of traditional digital spreadsheets with desktop installations. Many spreadsheet software developers offer companion applications for phones and tablets, allowing people to access and edit their spreadsheets wherever they are.

Microsoft Excel running on an iPad with collaboration features enabled
The Spreadsheet Renaissance: Spreadsheets as Project Management Tools

Over the past decade, spreadsheets haven’t just moved to the cloud – they’ve incorporated powerful new features built for project management in an effort to combat the reputation that a spreadsheet is a single-purpose tool used for finance and accounting.

Some of these programs, like Spreadsheet.com, keep a traditional spreadsheet grid at the core of the product, using it as the way by which data is organized and letting users build additional project management tools – like Gantt charts, project calendars, task scheduling, and more – on top of it.

A Spreadsheet.com workbook with a Gantt chart side-by-side with the traditional spreadsheet grid

Others, like Smartsheet, take inspiration from spreadsheet layouts but provide an overall approach that’s more similar to project management software like MS Project.

Part 6: The Future of Spreadsheets

Just as spreadsheets have continuously evolved from Mesopotamian stone tablets to the cloud-based project management powerhouses they are today, they will continue to evolve as technology progresses. Some of the features of the spreadsheets of the future are already used in products like Airtable and Spreadsheet.com today.

Using Databases to Control Large Amounts of Data

For as good as modern spreadsheets are at holding, manipulating, displaying, and analyzing large amounts of data, they’re not very good at talking to one another. Cross-sheet formulas allow for communication between different worksheets in the same workbook, but working with data across multiple workbooks can be next to impossible with most spreadsheet softwares.

With companies collecting and analyzing more and more data by the year, many have outgrown spreadsheets and must rely on database software instead.

For these applications, most people turn to database management systems like Microsoft Access or MySQL and programming languages like SQL. These tools allow users to query different pieces of data across multiple locations within a database so that they can generate reports, aggregate information, and run calculations.

Microsoft Access running on Windows

When managed by knowledgeable users, databases can be an invaluable tool for organizations to make use of large amounts of data. But compared to spreadsheets, databases have a steep learning curve, and although database management systems may resemble spreadsheets, even spreadsheet power users can run into roadblocks when transitioning to database software.

Spreadsheet-Database Hybrids

A new class of hybrid spreadsheet-database software – led by products like Airtable and Spreadsheet.com – aims to bring the best of both worlds to single pieces of software and remove the barriers to entry that many encounter when transitioning to database software.

These softwares use traditional spreadsheet grids – the familiar layout of rows and columns, support for cell references, and a library of functions to manipulate data – but incorporate database-like features of better cross-referencing between datasets and treating each row as a unique record, not just a series of data, making them easier to access and reference.

A Spreadsheet.com row displayed as an expanded record

They typically let users break their data out into different views – subsets of data that meet specific criteria or are ordered in a specific way – without using code, something that might otherwise only be accomplished through programming a SQL query in a traditional database.

Compared to traditional spreadsheets, spreadsheet-database hybrids typically offer more integrations with third-party software, as well as public APIs with read and write functionality.

In Spreadsheet.com, workbooks turn into databases through the use of Related rows, a data type that links multiple records across worksheets or workbooks.

Spreadsheets vs. Databases

Although a database management system may display data in a format that looks exactly like a spreadsheet, spreadsheets and databases are entirely different things. Granted, the two share some similarities – both spreadsheets and databases can contain large amounts of data, can use that data to perform calculations, and can be shared by multiple users.

Spreadsheets are digital ledgers – think back to those pre-modern accounting methods – that are primarily used to store information. Spreadsheets can only be formatted into rows and columns and, in traditional spreadsheets, data in cells can only be textual or numerical. Typically, spreadsheets are limited in how many cells, rows, or columns they can have.

Databases are more complex collections of data organized via structured query language, or SQL. Databases, like spreadsheets, are often organized into a series of “tables”, each with their own rows and columns. Most databases are unrestricted in their overall size and can contain much more information than the average spreadsheet.

A SQL query and its output (Image: Bernardo Sulzbach, via Wikimedia)

Crucially, databases can contain relational data, data that can be connected across multiple tables. Fields (i.e. columns) in one table can contain references to records (i.e. rows) – or aggregations of records – that live in other tables. This allows relational databases to serve as an organization’s single source of truth, reducing the time consuming and error-prone work of updating multiple places where data is held.

As to which is better – spreadsheet or database – there’s no single answer. Databases, generally, are more flexible, better suited to complex data, and can be navigated with more complex queries. But maintaining a database requires having a programmer or data scientist within an organization, or at least someone who knows how to use niche software like Microsoft Access.

Spreadsheets, on the other hand, can be opened, viewed, analyzed, and manipulated by just about anyone in the office, but the accessibility comes at a cost: simplicity, size restrictions, and a lack of methods for different sets of data to communicate with one another.

Spreadsheets vs. Their Reputation

As spreadsheets have become more advanced and feature-rich, their reputation has gone in the opposite direction. It’s not uncommon to come across articles like “Why Spreadsheets Suck”, or “Why Spreadsheets are Killing your Business.” Some memorable selections include:

“Spreadsheets are particularly vulnerable to error for a number of reasons…[I]n the spreadsheet biz, the answer to spreadsheet troubles is always more spreadsheets.”
– Forbes, “Why Spreadsheets Are Eating Your Business From The Inside Out” (2017)
“While many still see [Excel] as a helpful tool, some CFOs say finance teams rely on it too much, often for tasks that Excel isn’t well-suited to handle…They say there are limitations to Excel’s effectiveness, with users having a tough time keeping track of changes and verifying financial information.”
– WSJ, “Finance Chiefs Are Still Trying to Replace Excel With New Tools” (2021)
“If you want to connect your spreadsheets to the other systems you use, you’d have to hope that an integration exists on Zapier or a similar tool…A lack of integration means that customers and prospects might receive redundant information…or none at all. Neither of these scenarios translates into sales or growth for your business.”
– HubSpot, “22 Advantages & Disadvantages of Using Spreadsheets for Business” (2022)

When talking about traditional spreadsheets, much of this is fair criticism. Because they’re populated by people, spreadsheets are prone to human error. Without acting as a single source of truth, spreadsheets do make it difficult to keep track of changes. And traditional spreadsheets often can’t connect with third-party software or other programs that an organization may use.

On top of that, traditional spreadsheets have an image problem. Many still view them as boring, utilitarian tools best suited for middle managers and data entry specialists typing values into thousands of cells, or accountants and financiers crunching numbers in financial models as they’re burning the midnight oil.

But what these common critiques miss is that spreadsheets aren’t just spreadsheets anymore.

With today’s class of spreadsheet and spreadsheet-like products, a basic spreadsheet grid can become an end-to-end project management powerhouse in a matter of minutes with interactive Gantt charts, workload management tracking, assigning tasks to other users, task automation, and more.

With sharing, embedding, and collaboration features, they can act as powerful tools for internal communication, streamline review and approval workflows, and be easily shared with external stakeholders or the public.

With third-party integrations, spreadsheets can complement other software within an organization’s workflow, seamlessly breaking data out from the grid and into other tools where it can be used in ways not possible with traditional spreadsheets.

And as spreadsheet-database hybrids continue to grow and become more ubiquitous, spreadsheets can serve as single sources of truth for entire organizations, allowing more people to interact with and use information from internal databases that can now only be utilized by people with special database-specific skill sets.

Yet, despite their reputation, spreadsheets – and Excel in particular – remain workplace staples for a few simple reasons: they combine “the power of a programming language, the immediate usability of consumer software, and the skill progression of a video game with the flexibility to adapt to nearly infinite use cases…a combination no other software offers.”

Spreadsheets, as they have for the past 40-plus years, will continue to evolve. But they’re not going away.

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