10 Little Known Facts about Excel’s Humble Beginnings

Excel turns 30 today!

Yes, the program that has served as the foundation for my paycheck for over 15 years was saved to a Master Disk and rushed to market on this day in 1985. Given the impact Excel has had on the way the modern world works with data, it should be a global holiday. But I suspect this day will go unnoticed by almost all of Excel’s 1.2 billion users.


For my part,

I’m going to celebrate today by stacking a dozen Excel cupcakes into a pyramid, holding my hands behind my back, and speed eating them with my face…like I’m in a contest.


But before I do that, let me share a few bits of little known trivia about Excel.

1. The father of Excel is widely considered to be this man. Douglas Kundler. In 1981, Kundler joined Microsoft straight out of MIT and served as the Lead Developer for Excel. It’s estimated that he wrote a third of the original code himself, including the revolutionary “intelligent recalculation” paradigm. Intelligent Recalculation allowed Excel to recalculate only those cells affected by user changes. This gave Excel a huge advantage over Lotus 1-2-3 in terms of processing speed.


2. Excel 1.0 was largely based on Microsoft’s graphical Multiplan spreadsheet application and a Charting application it developed for the MAC. Those two applications combined became the foundation for Excel.


3. While in development, Excel 1.0 had the code name “Odyssey”. Microsoft development teams traditionally give their pre-release solutions code names. Much to my chagrin, the Excel development team, have long since abandoned swanky code names – choosing instead to go with the decidedly less creative Excel 12, Excel 14, Excel 15, etc. Come on Excel team…let’s go back to code names.


4. Microsoft settled on the name “Excel” for the final product, but other proposed names were put forth – including “Master Plan” and “Mr. Spreadsheet” (looks like John Walkenbach dodged a bullet).

5. When Microsoft released Excel in 1985, they entered into an exclusivity contract with Apple promising not to release a PC version of Excel for two years. In exchange, Microsoft would get the code details for many of the MAC’s system features. PC users would not see Excel until 1987 when Apple’s two-year contract expired. Before 1987, PC users were stuck with the DOS version of Multiplan.


6. Lotus 1-2-3 was never ported to the MAC. Instead, Lotus decided to develop a new spreadsheet program for the MAC called Jazz. In fact, it was the threat of Jazz that forced Microsoft into the strategic decision to release Excel on the MAC instead of their own DOS system. In the end though, Jazz was steamy turd that nobody liked. It failed miserably, making Excel the clear winner on the MAC. Most tech history geeks believe that if Lotus would have just ported 1-2-3 immediately to the MAC instead of diddling with Jazz, we very well could be celebrating 30 years of LOTUS right now.


7. Microsoft hired its very first QA Tester during the development of Excel (Gabe Newell, now a millionaire and co-founder of Valve Software.) Before that, developers would test their own applications. Gabe is shown here in the typical IT polo shirt complete with grease stains down the front.


8. Some of the Excel features we take for granted today, were actually included in Excel 1.0 just because they seemed like a nifty thing to do. At the time, features like Paste Special, Print Preview, and Array formulas were considered to be obscure features added as “bells and whistles”.


9. Excel 3.0 (1991) was the first application to use the modern toolbar. This would become a standard for many desktop applications for years.


10. The beloved PivotTable was not in the first version of Excel. In fact, the idea for pivot tables didn’t come from Microsoft at all. Lotus developer Pito Salas invented the Pivot Table paradigm, helping Lotus develop and launch their IMPROV application in 1991. Users loved IMPROV immediately. Unfortunately for Lotus, so did their competitors. Both Borland and Microsoft immediately went to work implementing their own versions of IMPROV. Borland implemented a tool called DataPivot into their Quattro Pro application, while Microsoft implemented PivotTables in Excel 5 (1993).


It’s time for cupcakes!






15 thoughts on “10 Little Known Facts about Excel’s Humble Beginnings

  1. MF

    Interesting history of Excel. Thanks for sharing.
    Btw, I believe you are right that 1.2 billon users do not know the birthday of Excel; Hong Kong alone contributes millions of it… 🙂

  2. Gordon

    Nice work, Pig.

    Another interesting nugget about Excel is responsibility for VBA can be traced more or less to Joel Spolsky who was responsible for Visual Basic for Applications (nee Excel Basic) in Microsoft from about 1991.

    Among other things, Joel went on to co-found Stack Overflow, a huge boon for people struggling to get to grips with precisely things like VBA.

  3. Steve D

    Interesting tidbits about an application used by millions!

    But there are a couple of errors:
    – Lotus 1-2-3 *was* ported to Macintosh. Twice, in fact (versions )1.0 and 1.1) before Lotus tried again with Jazz. I’m sure Excel’s take rate on Macintosh spurred the releases. But they were available.
    – Excel was *not* the first application to use a modern toolbar. Ashton-Tate’s Full Impact spreadsheet, introduced three years before Excel’s version-with-toolbar, was offering a modifiable group of function icons literally right out of the box.

    I don’t recall if Full Write (FI’s word-processing companioin) had a similar toolbar; I’ll have to hit my storage area to find *that* box. I have all of this software sitting in their original boxes, waiting for the day I restore my SE/30. 🙂

  4. datapig Post author

    Steve: Interesting… I didn’t even know about Full Impact spreadsheets. I’d ove to rummage through those old boxes of yours. Sounds like you may have a few neat pieces of history there.

  5. datapig Post author

    Steve: Wikipedia could be wrong, but it says that Excel 3.0 beat Full Impact to market.

    “After the delays, the timing turned out to be particularly bad. Microsoft had recently shipped Excel 3.0, which was off to a strong start. Only shortly after Full Impact was released, Informix Wingz shipped, and was heavily marketed—including sending their frontman, Leonard Nimoy, around to various Macintosh-related trade shows.”

    But at least they got Mr. Spock to front their product 🙂

  6. Steve D

    Well, if Excel 3.0 was introduced in 1991 (your #9 above) and it was the first version of Excel with a toolbar and if Full Impact was introduced in 1988 (per my box and Wikipedia’s entry for Full Impact), I’m thinking Full Impact still gets the credit.

    But, in FI’s case, that’s like having perfect teeth and dying early anyway. :-p

    Ashton-Tate always was conflicted about supporting the Mac. And before they realized it, the introduction of dBase IV for MS-DOS became the failure that eventually killed the entire company.

    I still remember Wingz’ introduction at MacWorld Boston. Both a figurative and literal circus. They spent a bundle on introducing that program. Too bad for Informix…. Excel is a great application. But serious competition is always good.

    Oh, and if you’re ever in Minneapolis/St. Paul, let me know. I’ve been collecting the old stuff for years.

  7. Paul Hsi

    I distinctly remember using Excel on the mainframe at the UW ACC around 1987-1988. No graphical interface.

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