How it all began

“Before there were presentations, there were conversations, which were a little like presentations but used fewer bullet points, and no one had to dim the lights.”

On the recommendation of a colleague, I read this great article, titled Absolute PowerPoint by Ian Parker of The New Yorker. It is about the history of PowerPoint and how it “edits our thoughts.” It’s fascinating to read about how it all began, including the perspectives of people that were directly involved in the tool’s evolution. It’s also fascinating, however, to read this 10-year-old article and think about how little has changed in the way we use the tool… but we’ll talk about that a bit later. In this post, I’d like to share some of the more interesting facts that I found about the history of PowerPoint!

  1. [Late 70's - early 80's] The idea for PowerPoint grew out of the need for employees from different departments within a company to communicate with one another, even if they didn’t speak the same technical language.
  2. [1981] Whitfield Diffie, a mathematician and cryptographer, wrote a small computer program that allowed you to draw storyboards on a computer, after becoming tired of the arduous process of creating 35mm slides for presentations.
  3. [1984] Bob Gaskins, a resident of the Bay Area, was inspired by Diffie, and also by the new personal computing developments from Apple and Microsoft. He hired a software developer and created Presenter (soon to be re-named as PowerPoint).
  4. [1987] PowerPoint version 1.0 was released for the Macintosh computer, and only produced black-and-white text and graphics. Laptops did not exist, and slides had to be printed to transparency.
  5. [1990] PowerPoint for Windows was launched and integrated into Office, after Microsoft purchased the software from Gaskins for $14 million.
  6. [1996] Genigraphics, a graphical design company that created and printed 35mm slides for presenters (and charged $240/hr for their services, to pay for their $50K computer systems), went bankrupt.
  7. [1997] The chairman and CEO of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy, banned PowerPoint use in his company (though the ban was often disregarded by his staff) because he felt it reduced employee productivity.
  8. [2000] Chairman of the Joint Cheif’s of Staff, General Henry H. Shelton issued an order to U.S. bases around the world to create “simpler” presentations, after reports that PowerPoint files were clogging the military’s bandwidth.
  9. [2001] Microsoft estimates that at least 30 million presentations are made each day.
  10. The AutoContent Wizard (r.i.p.) was actually dreamed up by Microsoft engineers as a joke, but made it into the released product.
  11. The original clip art in PowerPoint was designed by Cathleen Belleville, and the images were called “Screen Beans.”
  12. PowerPoint was first thought of as a toss-in program to the Office suite, which Word and Excel originally dominated.

Ahh, what the world would be like without PowerPoint… one can only image!

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