back to article Lotus 1-2-3 rebooted: My trip back to the old (named) range

Lotus 1-2-3, released on 26 January 1983, was not the first spreadsheet. That achievement belongs to VisiCalc, invented by Dan Bricklin at Harvard, programmed mainly by Bob Frankston, and released for - surprise - the Apple II in 1979. But as I fired up 1-2-3 on its 30th anniversary, I was reminded that while it wasn't an …


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  1. Buzzword

    Pound sign

    I vaguely recall that it wasn't possible to use the £ sign in the original Lotus 1-2-3, and that some enterprising young Brit made a decent wodge of cash selling a hack to replace the dollar sign with a pound sign. That same Brit went on to become a half-decent tech entrepreneur. Can't remember for the life of me what his name was though.

    1. lee harvey osmond

      Re: Pound sign

      Dr Alan Solomon

    2. Andrew Moore

      Re: Pound sign

      possibly right- I also seem to vaguely remember some hack by sticking a locale or charset command into autoexec.bat.

      I made a couple of quid by writing an old GWBasic program which sent a command to the printer telling it to print a pound sign whenever a dollar sign was received.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Pound sign

        "I also seem to vaguely remember some hack by sticking a locale or charset command into autoexec.bat."

        See: CodePages. Awful, awful hack. But it worked. On the kit of the day. Kinda.

        Beer, because otherwise I'll have nightmares about 1960s thru' early '90s computing.

  2. Anonymous Coward


    "Sadly I could not persuade the currency format to display anything other than the dollar symbol, but no doubt there is a way.".

    There is way, I'm very certain because it was something we actually had to learn for our exam. Its been ages, the article sure brings back good memories, but iirc...

    /range -> format -> currency

    I think that's the main menu location from which you can (obviously) set a range of numbers to be displayed as currency but that should also be the place (/range -> format) where you can customize the format itself.

    Obviously I'm not sure. Would I have a copy of Lotus 123 lying around I'd sure be tempted to look into it but no such luck (though I think I do have the original box with 5.25" disks somewhere on the addict).

    1. lee harvey osmond

      Re: AFAIK

      In version 2.0 and later, yes. But not in version 1.0.

  3. Tim99 Silver badge

    It's called a slash

    From the article: "Type a forward slash and all the available menus show up..."

    It's called a slash. There are slashes and backslashes. Microsoft needed to call it a forward slash when they had confused everything by using a backslash in directory paths.

    The only reason to use a backslash Is as an escape character on a proper computer :-)

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: It's called a slash

      Credit where it's due. It was *IBM* who decided to use backslash as a directory separator and they made *that* decision because they'd used the slash to introduce command line switches in DOS commands (presumably as a respectful, or fearful, nod towards JCL).

      There was a CONFIG.SYS switch to change this and restore sane behaviour, but no-one (end-users, that is) used it. In addition, normal forward-looking slashes were even then (and in many cases still are) acceptable as a directory separator. It's probably not too late even now to re-educate the end-users.

      1. Richard Plinston

        Re: It's called a slash

        > they'd used the slash to introduce command line switches in DOS commands

        The use of slash for command line switches came from DEC RT11 systems. When Gary Kildall was contracted to develop software by Intel for the 8080 the development was done on DEC machines. When he wrote CP/M he used many RT11 command line mechanisms including slash and many command names: PIP, DIR, TYPE, ... QDOS/MS-DOS/PC-DOS was a copy of CP/M. It was only with MS-DOS 2.x that directories were introduced and the syntax was copied from MS Xenix but they had to use backslash for directory separators. The result was a mishmash of DEC and Unix styles without the substance of either.

        1. IvyKing

          Re: It's called a slash

          QDOS/86-DOS/PC-DOS/MS-DOS copied much of the CP/M API much the same way that Linux copied the UNIX API, but it was a rather different beast underneath. The COPY command was more like the UNIX cp command than PIP, though COPY was internal to DOS did not have or need anything like the MOVECPM command. TSR capability was part of DOS from the 86-DOS days. MS-DOS 2.X introduced subdirectories, rudimentary stdin/stdout and a form of piping to be a bit more like UNIX.

    2. david 12 Silver badge

      Re: It's called a slash

      If you need to use escape characters, you aren't doing it right. Escape characters were (and are) a kludge, and the whole history of Comp. Sci. (two steps forward and one step back) has been the gradual education of lusers that in-line signalling is counter-productive, with the tactical advantages outweighed by the strategic failures.

    3. melt
      Big Brother

      Re: It's called a slash

      No, it's actually called a "solidus"!

      1. Tim99 Silver badge

        Re: It's called a slash

        [No, it's actually called a "solidus"!]

        OK, way back in the day - I was told by someone, even more ancient than I, that the char 010 1111 47 2F was called a virgule.

        Bob Bemer ("The Father of ASCII") refers to it as a "regular slash (or virgule or slant)" (1950s/60s?). The terminology "slash(solidus)" came later.

        Historically solidus tended to be used by people who wrote script with a writing instrument, printers tended to use the word virgule.

    4. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: It's called a slash

      The only reason to use a backslash Is as an escape character on a proper computer

      The real use for backslash, as any fule kno, is for writing logical conjunction (/\) and disjunction (\/) in ASCII. That's what it was invented for. That no one uses it for that purpose is just another reason all you damn kids with your ampersands and vertical bars should get off my lawn.

  4. disgruntled yank


    I've never been much of spreadsheet user, but I remember my wife feeling as if her forearm were on fire when she was making the transition to Excel and had to use that mouse that much more.

  5. Lee Dowling Silver badge

    Never used Lotus 1-2-3, but I had something called LotusWorks on my first PC, which was kind of based on Lotus 1-2-3 (and certainly was compatible in terms of files, IIRC). It was FABULOUS. An integrated DOS Office suite where you could multitask and even split the screen.

    That was my first real introduction to proper word-processing (and not just throwing characters onto a screen and being able to change them), spread-sheets and databases. Damn thing is near-invisible on Google now, though, but it was fabulous at the time.

    Edit: Screenshots here: for those that are interested.

  6. Rustident Spaceniak
    Thumb Up

    Came with a tutorial!

    I remember my uncle let me learn to use Lotus on his work computer (anyone remember Compaq?). It came with an extremely well-written tutorial that let you progress naturally from simple functions to more complex ones, gave you some examples where you could play around with the numbers, in short, it provided a half-playful introduction into the software. At the end of an hour or so, I felt like an expert at using it. Not something I've often experienced since then.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Came with a tutorial!

      "I remember my uncle let me learn to use Lotus on his work computer (anyone remember Compaq?)"

      Did you mean the "Compaq Portable"?

      Because I just got an "HP Compaq Elite" desktop two months ago, all the HP business machines are named "HP Compaq" (at least in the US).

  7. JimmyPage Silver badge

    Ah ... 1987

    I found a copy of 1-2-3 that came bundled with one (of two) PCs my department of 60 had to mess around with. Given I was on a student placement, I was allowed to have a play. I pretty soon got our HP7475 plotter working with it, and within a day, had knocked some graphs up.

    This piqued on guys interest. His job was to supply MI to various committees. Previously this involved using a teletype (yes !) to enter data to a Sperry 1100 (/60 IIRC) and waiting for a overnight batch job to turn it into binary. He then had to take a "Y" cable, and plug the HP7475 in between the teletype and RS232, and hope it would plot. 50% of the time it would, 50% of the time it would mess up. Another day gone.

    He was literally speechless, when I produced a graph he needed in less than 3 minutes. It was a true efficiency booster.

    When I left, they had 30 PCs, and more on order. I went to the Lotus exhibition at Earls Court (where I first saw a PS/2) , and kept bumping into people from my department ....

  8. Hugh 5

    Copy protection

    The other and quite major reason why Excel won was the fact that early versions of Word and Excel were NOT copy protected. You installed them on as many machines as you liked. Yes later upgrades meant paying out but getting into the organisation and displacing Supercalc, Quattro Pro and Lotus 123 became an inevitable reality.

    Does anyone remember the grief of the "license disk"? What a bad idea that was. It was almost like they didn't want you to use it, putting obstacles in the way for new users to even just try it out. Same effect with Word over and above WordPerfect or Windows et al (and Harvard Graphics for Windows and PowerPoint). Easy to install, easy to use initially (in any event) at nominal cost.

    1. moylan

      Re: Copy protection

      at a government paid for course i was taught spreadsheets on vp planner which was a clone of lotus 123 which copied all the keystrokes required to do exactly what lotus did.

      everyone had a copy of eventually sued out of existence vp planner instead of legit lotus.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Gone but not forgotten.

    “Those early versions were great, the menu accessible via the "/" key and ranges could be created using keystrokes like "/RNC" (range > name > create). I really miss those productive days.”

    Replace slash by ALT, and that's still how menus work on Windows today.

    1. mhoulden

      Re: Gone but not forgotten.

      Interestingly, the slash still opens menus in Excel 2010 which is the most recent version I have access to. Of course you can use Alt as well, even on Windows 8.

  10. Smilin' Stan

    And don't forget the BIG boogeyman: copy protection!

    Lotus being Lotus, had the most ornery copy-protection schemes around, and kept them long after they had any value. Microsoft, on the other hand, was handing out Excel with a Windows runtime built-in on a single floppy - and they gave them away like AOL later gave away CDs. Only the most die-hard accounting types stayed with 123 after getting one of those floppies - the difference in user experience - and lack of copy-protection - was like night and day. Why you could make spreadsheets at work AND at home. For free! (You can buy a pretty good laptop today for what Lotus was charging for a single copy of 123 20+ years ago.)

  11. dean.collins

    You've come a long way baby

    ….. or have we


    In many ways, the 30-year-old software package laid the foundations for the type of productivity app that's so ubiquitous in the modern computing experience and yet so important it has been thrown into the cloud by Google with Docs, Apple with iWorks and Microsoft with Office 365.

    Any thoughts on our stagnation, is it really that Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston were they that much smarter than everyone else/were they visited by aliens who gifted humanity the trellis spreadsheet concepts/ or is this just the ebb and tide of evolution since the Babylonians discovered zero and the next “big development” isnt due for 50 years from now…...



    1. keithpeter Silver badge

      Re: You've come a long way baby

      "Any thoughts on our stagnation, is it really that Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston were they that much smarter than everyone else/were"

      Scratch that itch.

      One of them was taking an MBA course. Remember that in the US 'spreadsheet' was the name for what we call analysis paper in the UK. The big sheets of A3 with cash book style columns printed on them that book keepers used to use to do accounts and trial balances.

      Bricklin was either building a complex financial model or helping someone else build a model. As they changed assumptions, they had to recalculate all the steps across a huge A3 spreadsheet. So one of them decides to see if you can do that with a computer...

      That thing where a computer can do an existing task just really easily and quickly, and how it is easy to add extra features once the basic functions are there by combining those functions... a quantitative change in speed produces qualitatively different effects

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Office Take Over ..

    Microsoft's best move was to allow you to trade one competitor product - e.g. Lotus, dBase, WordPerfect - and get the entire Office suite for £99. We all knew that doing this was a really bad idea as it would kill competition, but we did it anyway.

    As an aside, when I moved to my last house, I found some FoxPro disks and binned them thinking I'd clearly never need them again. The next job I went to, guess what was running half the feeds in to their systems?

    1. Daniel B.


      I still have the 2.5 for Windows + Distribution Kit floppies somewhere at my mom's home. Right next to the MS DOS 6.2 and Windows 3.1 set, so I can theoretically bring up a FoxPro dev system!

      I actually held to FoxPro well into the early 21st century; my 2002-01 semester project for a certain course was still made using FoxPro 2.5.

      I wish I still had FoxPro 2.0 for DOS, it's the last one that could actually build standalone EXEs...

  13. JimmyPage Silver badge

    Copy protection ? Really ?

    I'm struggling to recall the progam (yes kids, we called them "programs", not "apps") you could get which would copy "copy protected" disks. Had "II" in the name, "CopyIIPC" ? rings a bell.

    In those days, copy protection usually involved bypassing the BIOS to get the disk controller to access track 41 ? If I could be bothered, I'd dig out my MS DOS 3.00 programmers guide (which cost about £60). I also had a schematic of the FDC subsystem, with codes.

    1. Peter Simpson 1
      Thumb Up

      Re: Copy protection ? Really ?

      Copy II PC it was!

      Ahhh...fond memories

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Copy protection ? Really ?

        Copy II PC was one; there were other, more-ambitious utilities for copying copy-protected disks. I had one called "Disk Magic" or something like that which had an automated mode similar to what Copy II PC did, but also had all sorts of tools for inspecting and duplicating disks. It came with instructions for copying many popular titles, and the manufacturer would periodically issue bulletins with additions.

        It was written in BASIC, and sometimes the instructions would tell you to exit the program to the BASIC interpreter, poke certain values into memory at certain locations, and then restart the program. It was very nicely hackish.

        Of course I only ever used it to make archival copies of licensed software, or recover data from damaged disks.

    2. ThomH

      Re: Copy protection ? Really ?

      Track 41 was an option; others included deliberately malformed sectors (which couldn't be reproduced through the abstraction of a PC's floppy controller), oddly spaced sectors (which you'd time for after using a normal track for calibration), deliberately unformatted tracks and a host of other options.

    3. Daniel B.

      Re: Copy protection ? Really ?

      I remember a particular piece of software that had the "master disk" have a segment burned by a laser, thus causing an error that would serve as the "copy protection". An engineering dude was able to replicate it using a razor blade, but of course, while the crude thing worked, the floppy disk would get more and more damaged as time went by.

  14. Richard Jones 1

    123 Fun

    In the 1980s I used Lotus 123 a lot though not so much for financial working. The macro facility was hugely helpful allowing quite unskilled staff to input data and achieve 'professional results'. At one point I was writing macros to write macros for some of the more complex routines. Nested commands ran nearly the full 256 character limit in a line and reached from close to the top of columns to the bottom of the spreadsheet. some sheets had ten or twenty such 'program columns'.

    I also used to collect, or rather I wrote programs that in near real time collected telecommunications data, live from switches. It automatically built databases, processed the data into sub reports which were passed parameter like to an automatically booted copy of Lotus 123 which would run to churn out graphs which were saved. Then an automatically booted copy of Lotus Manuscript to embed the graphs into automatically generated CCITT reports.Everything made use of a range of conditional processing to insert or omit paragraphs or reports according to the data available. I left the whole lot running 24 hours a day. If there was enough data collected, someone simply sent off the fully formatted and printed reports that were generated overnight.

    It all worked well within 640KB of memory, those were the days


  15. Lunatik

    Fond memories of using Lotus 1-2-3 on an HP 95LX. Surprisingly usable for the size and time.

    I wish Google Spreadsheets was as responsive!

  16. banjomike

    ...a less reliable version of the DOS version ...

    Hm... like Wordstar, dBase, Paradox, most stuff from Borland, SuperCalc, ....

  17. Peter Simpson 1

    Thanks for the retro screen shots

    Now, let's see some VisiCalc!

    //if I'd only had spreadsheets during my uni years...

    //thanks, it's the one with the slide rule in the pocket

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    lotus legacy

    To this day the first thing I do with an new copy of Excel is go to the settings and set it to copy lotus navigation and I haven't touched a copy of 1-2-3 in 20 years at least. I also remember trailing Improv which was an attempt to change spreadsheets to something resembling what are now pivot tables, for the time a very powerful tool for certain types of budgeting and forecasting analysis

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What went wrong for Lotus 1-2-3?

    "I have decided that we should not publish these extensions. We should wait until we have a way to do a high level of integration that will be harder for like of Notes, Wordperfect to achieve, and which will give Office a real advantage .. We can't compete with Lotus and Wordperfect/Novell without this. Our goal is to have Office '96 sell better because of the shell integration work", link

  20. Herby

    It is interesting to study this now.

    My brother (he has an MBA) went ga-ga over Lotus 123. He was doing predictions for a business, and they would get bigger and bigger. For a while, he would be a customer for more and more memory for is lowly IBM PC.

    I really don't know how big he made it, but you needed to add in lots of cards to get memory up to a decent level. I believe he started with an XT, but he may have started with an original PC with floppies, as that is all that was produced.

    I suspect that even to this day, he likes 1-2-3 for spreadsheets, but probably uses Excel "because it is there".

    Yes, memories of the early 80's!

  21. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

    Wasn't OS/2 an issue?

    I thought I remembered that, as it was a business tool and priced accordingly, they wrote the GUI edition of 1-2-3 for OS/2. Suckered by Microsoft like everybody else.

    They also added a maps feature which meant that Microsoft Excel also had to have that added - so they got that much revenge anyway...

    1. alexmcm

      Re: Wasn't OS/2 an issue?

      Yeah, OS/2 and Improv seriously distracted Lotus. I was working on both 123 for windows release 4 (Darwin) and Improv at the same time. The big hope was that Improv would be the game changer, because we had fallen behind with windows due to the OS/2 debacle.

      Improv was great, just took a bit of learning over traditional spreadsheets, and with pivot tables etc being merged into normal spreadsheets it didn't catch on.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Modern software is rubbish

    <irate waving of zimmer frame>

    Back in *my* day, they made REAL software for REAL users and REAL productivity ... not this flashy, shiny "app" rubbish with all the touch and swipe nonsense.

    </irate waving of zimmer frame>

  23. JB

    Lotus 1-2-3 seemed to be the Rolls-Royce of spreadsheets for a time. In the late 80s were trained on SuperCalc 3, which you could get some good use out of. One of the wags in our class used Norton and changed all references on the floppy from SuperCalc to SuperCrap...the teacher wasn't best pleased!

  24. tinkytinca

    Remember to include the ??

    I remember there being a lot of controversy about including the 'line' in your range or any row increases in the table would not compute (I think Lotus were even taken to court over it

    I loved my DOS 123 it was a sad day for me when they went to windas.

  25. Andy
    Thumb Up

    not only did i use lotus 1-2-3 a lot in the old days but also the rather awesome add one called always 1-2-3 which added decent grafics to it and allow charts to be displayed on the screen at the same time ala windows style

  26. RAMChYLD

    Lotus 1-2-3

    Ah, I remember using it for my assignments on a Sharp PC-7000a portable, which was a hand-me-down. Everyone else were already using 386es, but this 8086 portable, upgraded to 768KB of RAM, got me through primary school (on the other hand, I was often chastised by my teachers because back then using computers to do homework wasn't allowed. Nowadays computer printouts are preferred. Ah, the visionary I was).

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hmm VisiCalc on Tandy Model 1

    I seem to remember the career plan was:

    1. Master Visi Calc on Tandy Model 1

    2. some stuff

    3. Rule world and enjoy personal wealth and happiness

    Something didn't quite work, but it wasn't VisiCalc on the Model 1 - that was great.

  28. redhunter

    Generally you can tell the age of folks around the office by how often they use the mouse to navigate around Excel. Those that cut their teeth on early versions of 1-2-3, tend to use keyboard navigation and shortcuts. I usually get a "how'd you do that" from the whippersnappers in the office as they observe me work a spreadsheet. Also, why do I have to press the tab key so many times on this website to get to the submit button to send this message—there's got to be a better way to activity the submit comment button.

  29. quad50


    I remember an advert for Jazz, with a guy in a suit up on his toes in some sort of dance move. But I was puzzled at the time about what exactly Jazz was. the ad did not tell me anything besides that I needed to buy it. I never really figured out what it was, until it was gone.

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