From the Editor's Desk
JULY-SEPTEMBER 2007 (Vol. 29, No. 3) pp. 2-3
1058-6180/07/\$31.00 © 2007 IEEE

From the Editor's Desk
David Alan Grier
 Article Contents Grids: Left to right, top to bottom Spreadsheets: Automated grids Changing of the guard Download Citation Download Content PDFs Require Adobe Acrobat
When Nevil Maskelyne, the British Astronomer Royal from 1765−1811, wanted to describe a calculation, he would create a grid. Taking a sheet of paper, he would fold it into quarters and divide it into cells with lines drawn with quill-tipped pen. Next to each cell, he would write an arithmetic expression. Take a value from one cell, the expression might suggest, multiply it by a constant and divide the result by the contents of a second cell. The value, thus obtained, should be placed in the adjacent cell. If he needed to explain an idea, he would sketch a graph on the back of the paper.
Grids: Left to right, top to bottom
Maskelyne would work from left to right and from the top of the sheet to the bottom. When he was done, he would have completely described the computation for an ephemeris, a table that might describe the motion of Saturn or Venus or one of the other planets against the background of fixed stars.
Maskelyne rarely did the actual computations for these plans. He generally assigned this work to an assistant, usually called a human computer. These descriptions were called computing plans and were commonly used by the Nautical Almanac and Surveying offices of the 18th and 19th century. Gaspard de Prony used them at the French Bureau de Cadastre in 1790. Charles Henry Davis employed such methods at the office of the American Almanac and Ephemeris in 1848. L.J. Comrie, who liked to write plans on accounting paper, continued the tradition of Maskelyne at the Royal Almanac through the 1920s. Gertrude Blanch, who preferred graph paper with five squares to the inch, created an extensive set of plans for the Mathematical Tables Project between 1938 and 1948.
Even with such a tradition, grid-based computing plans quickly vanished after the introduction of the electronic computation. Among the early pioneers, only Konrad Zuse seems to have considered using such plans to control an electronic device. Today, we generally view his proposed programming language, Plankalkül, as a creative alternative to the sequential languages of the 1950s, a novel idea that went nowhere. Yet, Zuse's language was built upon a computing tradition with at least 150 years of history, a tradition that was still an active craft in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The old traditions of the computing plans were temporarily displaced by the algebraic languages of the 1950s: Fortran, Cobol, Algol, Lisp, and APL. However, they were revived in 1978 and 1979 by Dan Bricklin, Bob Frankston, and Dan Fylstra with the creation of the modern spreadsheet. The trio released their first product, VisiCalc, in 1979. In less than two years, they had sold 200,000 copies. By 1985, it had become second only to word processing as the dominant application for personal computers.