Interesting facts about spreadsheets

Spreadsheets refer to computer applications having multiple rows and columns that contain individual cells. These cells contain text, numeric values and other information. Spreadsheets superseded paper worksheets a long time ago and have become the default option for capturing, storing, processing and manipulating information, especially financial information. They are used to create electronic documents that primarily hold numerical data and short text. Some of the most common spreadsheet features include cell formatting, pivot tables, formulas, data filtering and visualization.

From accounting and calculation to budgeting, reporting and office administration, spreadsheets are everywhere, including our mobile devices and we now live in a spreadsheet world. Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets, LibreOffice, Zoho Sheet and Smartsheet are some of the most popular spreadsheet applications with Microsoft Excel being the most popular. Following are some interesting (and even weird) facts about spreadsheets.

1. VisiCalc was the First Spreadsheet Program

Released in October 1979, VisiCalc was the first spreadsheet program that became so popular that users were willing to pay $2,000 to buy an Apple II computer to use the spreadsheet. Apple’s CEO admitted that the spreadsheet program played a pivotal role in the success of Apple II. Unfortunately, VisiCalc did not become the most successful as other spreadsheet programs soon took over.

2. Microsoft Excel was Initially Released for Mac

Microsoft released Excel in 1985 for Mac users. It was released at a time when another spreadsheet app Lotus 123 was leading the market, which was not available for Apple’s Mac. Microsoft released an integrated suite of office applications containing a spreadsheet, word processor and other utilities for Macintosh 512K. However, the launch turned into a high-profile flop and Microsoft later released Excel for Windows in 1987 to save the day.

3. The Story Behind the Name ‘Excel’

Some people believe that the name ‘Excel’ was picked to suggest that Microsoft’s program excelled over its competitor Lotus 123. Others are convinced that the name hints at declaring excellence and cells that make up a spreadsheet. Initially codenamed Odyssey, Microsoft also considered other names including ‘Master Plan’ and ‘Mr. Spreadsheet’, but finally settled on Excel, which was the first spreadsheet app to use a toolbar (from version 3.0).

4. Try Naming an Excel Worksheet to “History”

Microsoft Excel does not allow users to name any worksheet as “History”. That’s because the name is reserved for the sheet that is meant to track changes between shared workbooks. A user trying to name a sheet “History” will be greeted with an error message saying “History is a reserved name”. Viewing that mysterious sheet is possible, but it requires a few extra clicks.

5. Microsoft Excel Assumes 1900 to be a Leap Year

Microsoft Excel assumed 1900 to be a leap year to make it easier for Lotus 123 users to switch. Since Lotus 123 assumed 1900 as a leap year, Microsoft also ‘kept’ the bug in later versions of Excel despite the fact that the company could have easily fixed it. It only affected dates before 1 March 1900 and was not such a big issue for most users. The starting point of dates in Excel is 1 January 1900.

6. Excel Sheets Support Around 17 Billion Cells

Excel has evolved and kept pace with the advancement in computing technologies and is able to handle a lot more data than its early days. The number of rows of an Excel worksheet has increased significantly since its early days. Until Excel 95, the software was limited to 16,384 rows. After Excel 2007, it now supports 1,048,576 rows, 16,384 columns and a ‘potential’ 2,147,483,648 cells (selectable, noncontiguous).

7. Microsoft Excel Easter Eggs

Earlier versions of Excel included some easter eggs, including Excel 95, which had ‘The Hall of Tortured Souls’, a doom-like game in which the names of developers decorated the walls. Excel 97 had a mini flight simulator, while Office 2020 allowed accessing ‘Dev Hunter’, a mini 3D racing game (required DirectX). Microsoft Word also contained a hidden Magic 8 ball and pinball game.

8. The Guy with the World’s Largest Collection of Spreadsheet Apps

Ariel Fischman is recognized by Guinness World Records for owning the biggest physical collection of spreadsheet applications. [1]On May 15, 2018, the Financial advisor belonging to Mexico City owned 506 items. His primary motivation behind such a huge collection was his interest in learning about the history of spreadsheets and how they became so popular. The record excluded demos and disks without boxes; otherwise, the total number would have been around 800.

9. Almost 90% Spreadsheets Have Some Kind of Error

A vast majority of spreadsheets contain some kind of error [2], which if overlooked can cause damages in billions. Even a tiny human error can transform millions in profit to millions in loss. That’s exactly what happened when an accountant from Fidelity missed a negative sign and turned a $1.3 bn loss into profit, eventually leading to cancellation of the fund.

10. There Exists a World Spreadsheet Day

October 17th is recognized as the World Spreadsheet Day, which points to October 17th 1979 when the first spreadsheet program VisiCalc was released. The day has been celebrated in different ways, including Microsoft’s Day of Data (2020) [3] in which the company collaborated with NASA to explore how data has transformed and powers the world in general and astronauts and space missions in particular.

11. Microsoft Office Specialist World Championship

In addition to the World Spreadsheet Day, we also have a day primarily dedicated to Microsoft Excel events. The 19th competition was held in 2021 and attracted over 200,000 participants from 108 different countries [4]. Out of 200K participants all wanting to prove their mastery of MS Office, only 160 made it to the final rounds. Ami Nakazono from Japan was named the champion in Microsoft Excel. The 2022 event will be held in California by Certiport.

12. Users can Transpose Columns into Rows

It’s a big hassle to manually swap data between columns and rows. Microsoft Excel offers a solution for those who mistakenly put rows data into columns and vice versa. Paste Special allows users to transpose data in just a few clicks (by selecting the Transpose check box) and can save them a lot of time and effort in correcting their mistakes.

13. Digital Artists Also Use Excel to Create Art

Although Excel is meant to deal with numerical data, this cannot stop creative people from creating digital art. Tatsuo Horiuchi, a 73-year-old artist from Japan, used Microsoft Excel to create digital art by using the ‘autoshape’ feature. He was not able to afford expensive creative design tools and settled on Excel (supports 186 million colors) to create intricate art work and earned 2006’s Excel Autoshape Art Contest.

14. Excel’s Quick Analysis Can Save Your Day

Excel allows users to quickly create charts and analyze data, thanks to the Quick Analysis tool. It allows users to generate a preview of formatting, charts, tables and more in just a few clicks. This tool is especially useful for people who need to quickly convert data into tables or charts for presentations or delivering reports.

15. People Have Made Games and Animations Using Excel

Digital Art isn’t the only thing people have managed to create on Microsoft Excel. Many people have recreated iconic games using the application, including Monopoly, Pacman, Sudoku!, Tetris and even modern games like Candy Crush Saga and 2048. YouTube’s ‘Mystery Guitar Man’ (Joe Penna) managed to create a stop-motion animation video of himself performing a song by creating spreadsheet mosaics.

16. Power Pivot is a Powerful Data Modeling and Analysis Tool

Power Pivot allows users to create complex data models and mash up huge volumes of data in Excel. Data can be imported from a wide range of sources, including corporate databases, other spreadsheets, public data feeds as well as locally stored text files. It pushes Excel to its limits of data processing and data mining and takes the functionality of the software to another level.

17. Between 0.5 to 1.5 Billion People Use Microsoft Excel

It’s not possible to accurately determine how many people use Excel because firstly, it’s part of an Office Suite and secondly millions of people use unauthorized copies. However, it’s estimated that from 0.5 to 1.5 billion people use the software, which roughly translates into 15% of the world population. In 2015, Microsoft officially confirmed [5] that its productivity services are used by 1.1 billion people.

18. Easy to Use, Yet Offers A lot to Power Users

It’s pretty easy to use Excel on a basic level with data analysis being a little more difficult than using email. At the same time, built-in templates and macros make it a lot easier for users to work with unstructured spreadsheets. Many businesses find Excel a great starting point for improving their business processes and optimizing data through automated checks, taxonomy lists and data validation.

19. Google Took Spreadsheets to the Cloud

Although VisiCalc, IBM’s Lotus 123 and Microsoft Excel were the pioneers and made it possible for a common man to access modern technologies, Google took it to another level in 2006. Google acquired 2Web Technologies and turned its XL2WEB service into Google Spreadsheets. Google Sheets ran from the cloud and allowed users to access it from anywhere, using almost any device.

20. Excel Has Over 450 Built-in Functions

From converting Roman numerals to Arabic to Flash Fill, Paste Special and Remove Duplicates, Excel offers more than 450 built-in functions. In addition to these, a large number of functions are unknown to average users because they are included on-demand for enterprise users that request these to fulfill their unique requirements. These functions remain embedded in Excel even if no one uses them to keep all enterprise users happy. 

Conclusion

Although rows and columns have been used to organize information since the Mesopotamian era, spreadsheet applications as we know today have been around for 40 years. They remain one of the most popular tools for analyzing data and have transformed how we manage information and perform analytics. With around two billion people using spreadsheets around the world every day, spreadsheets still play an important role in the world of financial information and data analytics.

References

1. https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/512913-largest-collection-of-physical-spreadsheet-software

2. https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2019/04/04/what-are-the-shortcomings-of-spreadsheets/?sh=4ed333ac4ee4

3. https://techcommunity.microsoft.com/t5/excel-blog/celebrate-world-spreadsheet-day-with-the-day-of-data/ba-p/1773208

4. https://www.moschampionship.com/past/

5. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/investor/events/FY-2015/morgan-stanley-qi-lu.aspx?EventID=156417