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Episode 606: Spreadsheets!

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Note: This episode originally ran in 2015.Spreadsheets used to be actual sheets of paper. Sometimes, a bunch of sheets of paper taped together.

Any calculation made on a spreadsheet was done by hand, and these could take days to complete for an accountant or bookkeeper. It was tedious. One little adjustment to these calculations meant a whole day of erasing and filling the same boxes out again.

Then, in the late '70s, a bored student invented the electronic spreadsheet. It transformed industries. It created new jobs, and destroyed others.

But its effects ran deeper than that. It changed the way we assigned value, and made decisions.

As one journalist wrote more than 30 years ago, "The spreadsheet is a tool, and it is also a world view — reality by the numbers."

Today on the show, how the spreadsheet transformed not just finance but health, entertainment, and almost everything else.


Today's show was inspired by A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge, a 1984 article by Steven Levy.

Music: "Sublimely." Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

Subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts or PocketCast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.
Jacob Goldstein is an NPR correspondent and co-host of the Planet Money podcast. He is the author of the book Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing.