Meet the 2022 Commonwealth Award Recipient Dan Bricklin

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Dan Bricklin standing
Dan Bricklin. Credit: Louis Fabian Bachrach

For Dan Bricklin, the 2022 MassTLC Commonwealth Award recipient, photography and electronics have been two of his life’s great passions. These pursuits have been threads throughout his career and personal life, and each has nourished the other and led Dan to contribute beyond measure to the Massachusetts tech landscape.

The man who would one day co-create the spreadsheet started his entrepreneurial life as an amateur photographer. Dan honed his skills enough through his childhood that by high school he was being asked to take pictures at day camps and school plays. Even then, Dan had a gift for designing solutions, figuring out how to outfit a tiny basement bathroom into a darkroom.

Photography afforded Dan the funds to pursue another love, electronics. It was not just developing the technology that interested Dan, he cherished creating things that solved problems for others. Later in life, Dan’s work in electronics and computer science funded his continued interest in photography and, later, video, audio, blogging, podcasting, and social media. His interests have always been intertwined.

Dan Bricklin, Bob Metcalfe, Doug Engelbart
Dan Bricklin, Bob Metcalfe, Doug Engelbart

Luckily, for those of us who appreciate Massachusetts’ storied role as a hotbed of technology innovation, Dan Bricklin, throughout his own career as a tech innovator, captured many important events and participants through photographs, video recordings, and podcasts. Some of Dan’s archives include video recordings at the Boston Computer Society of Steve Jobs giving a talk about the Macintosh; podcast interviews with luminaries such as Ward Cunningham; and photos of Tim Berners-Lee at Bob Metcalfe’s house. Much of this material has been digitized and shared with the Computer History Museum.

VisiCalc first version
First version of VisiCalc screenshot
Credit: Dan Bricklin

Most in this industry know Dan for creating the spreadsheet alongside his close friend, Bob Frankston. The pair did not go out searching for this challenge, per se; rather, Dan wanted to make his life a little easier while at Harvard Business School. The functionality of the spreadsheet —as originally implemented in their product called VisiCalc — has not changed much in 40 years. One of the most important productivity tools ever created has stood the test of time and made an immeasurable impact on every business. The spreadsheet is credited with driving the rapid growth of the personal computer market, and Steve Jobs himself said that “VisiCalc…propelled the success [of Apple] more than any other single event.”

Other notable, but not as widely known facts about Dan – he developed one of the first standalone, screen-based word processors. He won the Software Publishers Association’s “Codie Award” for Best Programming tool in both 1986 and 1987 for Dan Bricklin’s Demo Program and Dan Bricklin’s Demo II Program, respectively, programs for prototyping and simulating other pieces of software. Dan also created Note Taker HD, a powerful app for writing and organizing handwritten notes, diagrams, etc., on the iPad and iPhone, and for annotating PDF files.

Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin
Caption: Bob Frankston (standing) and Dan Bricklin, co-founders of Software Arts, Inc.
Credit: © www.jimraycroft.com 1982

For Dan, there is a real human impact in what he does, and over the years he has been thanked by users of his solutions for whom those tools provided access and opportunity in completely unexpected ways. When asked why he has focused on productivity tools throughout his lengthy and storied career, Dan answers:

One of the joys of being in the tech business is having others use what you build. I’m a tool builder. I like to build tools that others can use to get their work done. That gives me joy.

Dan continues to develop for others through his company Software Garden and also through his work  as full-time CTO at Alpha Software.

VisiCalc use for HBS case
Dan’s notes and typed (using a typewriter) report calculated with an early version of VisiCalc
Credit: Dan Bricklin

Please join us on October 11th to celebrate one of the region’s true innovation legends, Dan Bricklin, the 2022 Commonwealth Award recipient.

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