A brief history of Boeing Calc, the first modern spreadsheet

At one point they might have said that TV would be the downfall of modern civilization. That may have to be revised; one can spend an inordinate amount of time clicking about on Wikipedia, and then googling for information not already listed there. 10 years is an awful long time for information to a) Go uncataloged on wikipedia and b) not be replicated by scraper sites.

Anyways, I was sort of shocked to find out that Corel Word Perfect is still an actively developed piece of software.  This led to clicking on the Quattro Pro page, which led to reading about Boeing Calc. My Dad worked for Boeing for oh… probably 7 years, so this piqued my interest. But Boeing makes airplanes, not software! But I suppose it makes sense that a huge defense contractor would need to crunch huge chunks (in this case, up to 32mb) of data at a time. Interestingly, Boeing has an entire software division, since 1978 even.

As it turns out, sadly there is absolutely no information on Boeing Calc left on the internet. Wikipedia claims it to be the first spreadsheet with tabbed worksheets, aka the “workpad” or “3d spreadsheets”. I can’t for the life of me seem to find a copy of this software anywhere to get a screenshot of said software, but if you have a very old copy, let me know as I would love to try running this software in a VM. Apparently it had support for Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets. Actually I did find a screenshot of Boeing Calc in InfoWorld:

Anyways, this was the only information I found about it, on a now-dead website (more after the jump):

A Short (not particularly complete or chronologically correct) History

Boeing Calc was one of the last vestiges of a failed attempt at a grand unification of software systems that Boeing had attempted in the early 80′s.

With dawning of the micro and small mini computer era and the myriad of machines such as the apple, the various CPM brands, the low end mini’s (PDP 11/03 or Teraks), and IBM PC looming on the horizon Boeing looked upon a chaotic, nearly unsupportable landscape of software needs and decided that the state of things were definitely not good.

To tackle this problem they launched the BITS (Boeing Intelligent Terminal System) project. The idea was to create one operating system and one set of applications software that would be used company wide. To accomplish this Boeing purchased a license to the UCSD Pascal system and wrote Byte code compilers written to support the myriad of machines used.

Applications to run on the system created were written: A word processor, a database, a spread sheet, and some others. The system was even sold outside of Boeing and its use on production machines outlived its presence at Boeing by a number of years.

Enter the IBM PC.

With the advent of the IBM PC, the whole mix of machines used at Boeing changed. More and more the groups ordered the IBM PC and usage of the other types of personal computer faded away. And so did the reason for BITS.

Boeing canceled the BITS project and with it the applications were dropped. The word processor was just a word processor and not a great one at that. Gone! The data base, GONE! But the spreadsheet, now that had been an ambitious and innovative implementation. It introduced the concept of pages to the normal columns and rows. It was decided to continue work on it and sell in the dos world.

Boeing relaunched Boeing Calc as PC based product that used virtual memory to allow you to create spreadsheets up to the available space on the hard drive.

It was slow… very slow.. the hard drive of the day was not a particularly speedy beast. But the ability to do huge spreadsheets was a draw for many companies. Eventually a native compiler was written for the Pascal system and the help speed things quite a bit. The 286 came out and extended memory systems that allowed for much bigger in memory spreadsheets.

A deal was cut with a German company to add on a 3D graphing package that be came to be known as Boeing Graph. The deal was a very nice one, for the German company that is.

There was also a mainframe version of Boeing Calc running on IBM big iron. Not really looking much like the PC version it was hard to see the connection. But it could take the files and run them MUCH faster.

Being an manufacture of airplanes, Boeing did not understand the PC software market. At $400 a copy the bean counters claimed they were losing money on each copy sold. This was mainly due to the overhead accounting system they used.

There was a short lived attempt to spin the products off into a new company. It failed miserably.

Here’s an InfoWorld article dated from 1987 on google books

Here’s a library catalog card for a book on Boeing Calc

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10 Responses to A brief history of Boeing Calc, the first modern spreadsheet

  1. Cedric Pellerin says:

    If you can read french, you can find a

  2. Cédric Pellerin says:

    If you can read french you can find a complete test of Boeing Calc and Boeing Graph in SVM #44 (http://www.abandonware-magazines.org/download.php?num=2236).
    I’d love to find a copy of these softwares to test them too.



  3. Trekseller9201 says:

    I’m cleaning out my collection of old software. I have a copy of BoeingGraph on 5.25-inch diskettes. If you want it, please contact me, trekseller9201 at gmail dot com.

  4. Don says:

    Ya caught me while I was having a bit of server trouble. The site is live again.

  5. john meister says:

    I worked for Boeing Electronics Company in the mid-80s… we were able to purchase boeing calc from BCS (Boeing Computer Services) for around $19 in 1987 or so… I’m pretty sure I bought a copy…

  6. Felicia says:

    A friend of mine has an original copy of both Boeing calc and graph 3d still in the box

  7. admin says:

    I got a copy of BoeingCalc from Trekseller9201 (thanks!) and borrowed a mint-condition 5 1/4″ drive from my friend who works for a university, but wasn’t able to pull the files off the disks. I’ll have to post a writeup about that soon. If you have a copy, see if you can get the executables off the disk somehow(!). It sounds like there are a couple of physical disks laying around still, but I’m not sure if anyone has disks that are uncorrupted enough to salvage the data. If you manage to get the data off the disks, email me!

  8. PcMakr says:

    If someone can get a working copy of the files, I would like to get a copy of them. I used Boeing Calc many years ago, and would like to see if I could do anything with it.

  9. Ashley Pomeroy says:

    I had exactly the same thought process as you – I was reading about Quattro Pro, and noticed the redlink to Boeing Calc, which was odd because Boeing makes airplanes etc. I remember Lockheed used to make graphics cards. Still, thanks to Google Books I managed to knock up a Wikipedia article on Boeing Calc. The impression I get is that it was too complicated for its own good, although the multi-page spreadsheets were very influential. Infoworld’s review pointed out that it was very slow on a 6mhz PC AT, which took me back. Wonder if anybody has a copy? A proper screenshot would be nice.

  10. Jeff Angus says:

    I worked at Boeing Computer Services on a different product (RIM, a truly-relational database whose inventor, Wayne Erickson, took into the microcomputer marketplace as R:Base with his company MicroRIM).

    I went on to be the Seattle Bureau Chief for InfoWorld, the leading weekly that reviewed software. While there, I was able to advocate for and get a review of Boeing Calc because it was such a worthy competitor. Not only that, but I was able to help InfoWorld find perhaps the most capable spreadsheet jockey of that era, Jim Toole, to write the review.

    While your screenshots, I believe, are from this review, from what you said in your post, you may not have read the text.


    Hope this fulfills some of your curiosity.

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