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African-American History Month: From Shortstop to Spreadsheets

Vernon Dantzler wrote one of the earliest spreadsheet programs

Published: Thursday, February 23, 2017 - 13:02

To any of his sports-fan colleagues, NIST mathematician and computer programmer Vernon Dantzler might have been somewhat of a celebrity. Dantzler had been a professional baseball player, and a star shortstop in the Texas circuit of the Negro Baseball League during the early 1940s, before the desegregation of Major League baseball. Dantzler also had a degree in mathematics from the Tuskegee Institute, and would later earn a graduate degree in the same field from American University.

After serving in the military during World War II, he joined the National Bureau of Standards (now called NIST) in 1947 as a mathematician in the Mineral Products Division, conducting research on concrete. By the early 1960s, he had become interested in computer programming.

https://www.nist.gov/sites/default/files/styles/480_x_480_limit/public/images/2017/01/25/vernon_dantzler.png?itok=-Ds5d1HT
NIST mathematician and computer programmer Vernon Dantzler
Source: NIST Standard Alumni Association Newsletter.

Dantzler wrote many of the subroutines for what became the NIST OMNITAB program. This computer program, first released in 1966, is considered one of the earliest spreadsheet programs. OMNITAB automated routine numerical and statistical data-handling tasks, making digital computers accessible and useable for nonspecialists. OMNITAB included an extensive math engine, a macro language, produced graphs, and used a row-and-column format for updating calculations based on new input.

OMNITAB was widely used in government, industry, and academia; foreign-language versions were produced in French, German, and Japanese. OMNITAB remained popular until about 1980, when other commercial spreadsheet programs became available. A legacy version of OMNITAB is still accessible.

Vernon Dantzler retired from NIST in 1977, and passed away at the age of 89 in 2004.

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Founded in 1901, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a nonregulatory federal agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce. Headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland, NIST’s mission is to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.