Category: <span>User Experience</span>

In 1980, my uncle gave me an Apple ][ plus for my birthday. I had been telling any adult who would listen for about a year that I wanted a computer. Most of the time the response was something along the lines of, “Why do you need a computer?” Honestly I didn’t know, but I knew they were cool, and I fantasized daily about owning a Commodore Vic-20 or a Sinclair ZX80. Honestly I thought the Apple ][ was pretty far out of reach for this 11-year-old, but my wealthy uncle thought different.

It didn’t come with a disk drive – he didn’t know any better. It had 16K of RAM, and when I got it, I didn’t have a monitor or even an RF-modulator to hook it to a TV. I could literally do nothing with it on the day I got it. Fortunately my mom had an old B/W monochrome monitor kicking around her lab, and she brought it home so I could use the computer.

It was about 6 months before I got a disk drive, and during that time I wrote many short programs in AppleSoft BASIC, occasionally saving them to audio-cassette, but more often losing my code when the computer was turned off. The one (there was only one) at my middle school had a disk drive, and I owned a single 140KB Verbatim disk at first. I kept all my work on that disk, which still exists in a box in my mom’s basement in Kansas City as far as I know.

The Apple ][ plus was an all upper-case computer with a 40×25 character display. There was a shift key on the keyboard, but that was for punctuation and special characters over the numbers. There was a CTRL key, an ESC key, left and right arrows, and a RESET key. But there were no function keys, no Alt, Option, Fn, Tab, Apple or “cloverleaf” keys, and no numeric keypad. (I have a slightly interesting story about the REPT key for another day.)

Input was super minimal:

Apple II Keyboard.png:

Little did I know at the time, that the first spreadsheet program had been developed a year or two earlier. Enter Dan Bricklin’s and Bob Frankston’s VisiCalc. Here’s a screenshot:


I didn’t get my hands on VisiCalc until 1981. The first thing any Apple ][ VisiCalc user had to know was that the ‘/’ (forward-slash) key brings up the menu on the top row of the screen. You used the left and right arrow keys to pick a top-level command, and hit RETURN. At least some of the commands then had a sub-menu which would appear on the second row, and then you’d hit RETURN again to execute the command.

It was a really elegant system for using just four keys to represent a command hierarchy on two lines of all upper-case text, just 40 characters long. That was about 8% of the total available screen real estate, which was otherwise occupied by some status readouts – location, cell contents, formula, etc. Bob Frankston wrote up his experience of Implementing VisiCalc, including a few paragraphs about how the ‘/’ key worked.

In late 1996, 15 years after I first saw VisiCalc, I started my own “online journal” and completely subconsciously copied this idea for my site’s navigation. (I only just now realized that.)

I have no idea if this was an original idea introduced by VisiCalc, but whoever’s idea it was, it stuck. We have today menu hierarchies hanging off the top of screens on the Mac, and at the tops of windows on Windows, at least until Metro broke the paradigm — we’ll see how that goes.

You’re rambling, Jake – what’s your point?

Something else that stuck around, at least in the spreadsheet world is the ‘/’ key. I don’t know if they copied it directly from VisiCalc or if Lotus copied it first. And I’ve never used Lotus, so I don’t know if they used it or not.

But to this very day in Office 2010 on Windows the ‘/’ key puts focus on the “Ribbon” – the 2010 version of those top two 40-character, all upper-case, B/W inverted rows of text on the Apple ][ version of VisiCalc.

Try it for yourself – it’s pretty amazing.


Sadly, the Mac version of Excel doesn’t do anything special with the ‘/’ key. Somewhere along the line, VisiCalc’s religion was lost to the Apple universe, but it still survives over in Microsoft-land.

PS. I also had one of these.

PPS. GuyZero commented over on Metafilter about Lotus 1-2-3’s use of the ‘/’ key, so Lotus did in fact keep the VisiCalc legacy alive too.

PPPS. Bonus link – Dave Winer: What early software was influential?

User Experience