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Top 10 Surprising and Fun Facts about Microsoft Excel

By Sean McManus, Author of 100 Top Tips: Microsoft Excel

Photo of the book 100 Top Tips Microsoft Excel, next to a mug that says I Heart Spreadsheets on it. Which major rock band created a video with Excel? Who lost millions through a misaligned cut and paste? What does a love poem in Excel look like? These questions and more are answered in my round-up of surprising facts and trivia about Microsoft Excel, the market-leading spreadsheet package.

For more surprises, check out my book 100 Top Tips: Microsoft Excel. You'll be amazed how much time you can save by learning a few expert techniques from this compact and easily skimmable book.

  1. Rock & Roll! In 2008, AC/DC hid a video for the song Rock N Roll Train inside an Excel spreadsheet. The video was an ASCII art version, made up from letters and punctuation symbols and computer-generated from the original filmed video. The spreadsheet animation was created by storing the frames in a series of cells and using Visual Basic to display them. The video only contained a short excerpt of the song, which users downloaded together with the spreadsheet. It was a clever viral marketing gimmick, that enabled the band to get into people's inboxes.

  2. Paste carefully. "It was literally a cut-and-paste error in an Excel spreadsheet," said Steve Snyder, president of TransAlta Corp, explaining how TransAlta came to lose US$24 million. The error resulted in TransAlta bidding too much money for low-demand transmission routes, and buying more capacity than it needed.

  3. Making art. Tatsuo Horiuchi creates paintings using Excel. The artist uses the Insert Shapes option on the Home ribbon to create colourful digital artworks, which are sold as Excel spreadsheets.

    Abstract painting created in Excel

    Artwork by Tatsuo Horiuchi, reproduced with permission

  4. Excel first appeared on the Mac. Microsoft Excel was first released for the Mac in 1985 and for Windows in 1987. It wasn't Microsoft's first spreadsheet program. The company launched a spreadsheet package called Multiplan in 1982. The very first spreadsheet was Visicalc (pictured below), which was created in 1979 by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston. In 1997, Bricklin told the Financial Times: "When I turned 40, I didn't have to ask: 'What am I going to do with my life?' It really makes me feel good [to see the success of the spreadsheet]. If you are a child of the 1960s, you want to change the world."

    Screenshot of Visicalc spreadsheet

    The Visicalc spreadsheet. Image courtesy of Gortu at Wikipedia.

  5. Lyrical Verse. Poet Brian Bilston has used Excel to write visual poetry, including a poem called Love Excels that's packed with references to spreadsheets. Read it below (with thanks to Brian for permission to reproduce it).

    Poem by Brian Bilston in an Excel spreadsheet. First verse is: Let's spread ourselves on sheets of love, and turn our data into poetry. Our cells shall merge themselves together as yo uwrap your text around me.

  6. Hidden gaming. Excel 95 included an Easter Egg (a hidden feature) which was a 3D game. It looked a bit like Doom, which was popular at the time, and included the names of the development team. The game was called "The Hall of Tortured Souls". In one room, you could see photos of the dev team, too.

  7. Taking flight. Excel 97 had an alien landscape flight simulator built into it as an Easter Egg. It included a screen with the credits of the developers scrolling across it.

  8. Spreadsheets driving you mad? Excel 2000 included a road racing game called Dev Hunter as its Easter Egg. The Microsoft team credits are written on the road. While Easter Eggs were fun, Microsoft recognised that they eroded trust in the software. Often these games hidden in productivity software were unwelcome distractions in schools and workplaces. At a time when malware and email-bourne viruses were becoming significant problems, it was no longer viable to hide unrelated games inside application code. Excel 2000 was the last version to have an Easter Egg.

  9. Competitive number crunching. There is a World Championship in Excel. The Microsoft Office Specialist World Online Championship takes place annually and is open to students from all over the world aged 13 to 22. In 2021, the winners were Ami Nakazono from Japan (Microsoft 365 Apps and Office 2019), and Songyao Luo from China (Office 2016). The first prize was US$7,000 in each category.

  10. Dive, dive! The submarine simulation game Gato, released in 1984 for MS-DOS, included a so-called "Boss Key". When it was pressed, the game screen was replaced with a spreadsheet, so anyone having a sneaky game in the office could look like they were working. There was also a Boss Key in the Apple IIe version.

    Screenshot of Gato on M.S.-DOS

    Quick, hit the boss key!


My favourite Microsoft Excel time savers

Here are some quick but powerful ideas you can start using today, taken from my book 100 Top Tips: Microsoft Excel. The book is packed with ideas and shortcuts to save you time and increase your effectiveness with Excel. Find out more and download a free PDF sample of 100 Top Tips: Microsoft Excel here.

Excel Tip from 100 Top Tips: Microsoft Excel

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Visit www.sean.co.uk for free chapters from Sean's coding books (including Mission Python, Scratch Programming in Easy Steps and Coder Academy) and more!

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