History of Accounting

Accounting is practiced at different levels and in different institutional contexts, with national accounting, government accounting and business accounting being the main forms today. According to Carter and Davies et al. (2000), government accounting applies to government agencies at different levels; business accounting applies to business enterprises and to many nonprofit institutions, with relatively minor differences between the various legal forms of organization and between industries.

Accounting uses various bases of measurement, mainly the cash basis, the accrual basis (or historical cost) and variations of these (Carter & Davies et al., 2000).

According to John R. Alexander, accounting is a little different than most other modern professions. Accounting has a history that is usually discussed in terms of one seminal event – the invention and dissemination of the double entry bookkeeping processes. Paul Garner and Atsuo Tsuji (1995) report that the first printed treatise of bookkeeping in the world is the Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita written by Luca Pacioli. The treatise was published in Venice in 1494, and was reprinted at Toscolano in 1523. This work is one of the most important books on mathematics and has had an enormous impact on the field of accounting ever since. The Treatise 11 of Section 9 of this book--that is, "particularis de Coputis et Scripturis," is a treatise about double entry bookkeeping.

The system of bookkeeping that Luca Pacioli described first introduced the practice and theory that had developed in commercial cities in Italy, particularly in Venice. Pacioli wrote in the first chapter of his treatise, "We will here adopt the method employed in Venice which among others is certainly to be recommended, for with it one can carry with any other method." Pacioli was born in Borgo San Sepolcro, lived in Venice and became the tutor of three sons of a rich merchant, Antonio de Rompiasi. It seems that he could have had a chance to see the account books of the Venetian merchants and to study the method of double entry bookkeeping in Venice.

The bookkeeping method of Luca Pacioli has several distinct characteristics:

  1. Pacioli wrote that there are three things needed by one who wished to carry on business diligently. The most important of these is cash or any other substantial power (altra faculta substantiale). The second is a good accountant (buon ragioneri) and a sharp bookkeeper. The third is good order in order to arrange all business to debit (debito) and credit (credito).
  2. Pacioli explained the opening inventory (inventario), but he did not describe the closing inventory.
  3. Pacioli’s account book system is three account books-that is, a day book. The day book is the first book, the journal is the second book and the ledger is the third book. Pacioli thought of the day book as the formal account book, because he wrote that the day book must be presented to a certain mercantile office (certo officio de mercatâti).
  4. All things pertaining to a transaction must be written in the day book, without omission. Pacioli wrote that no point must be omitted in the day book.
  5. Pacioli described debit and credit--that is, "per" and "A" in the journal, and "die dare" and "die havere" in the ledger (Garner & Tsuji, 1995, p. 160).

However, any view of accounting history that begins with Luca Pacioli’s contributions will overlook a long evolution of accounting systems in ancient and medieval times. In attempting to explain why double entry bookkeeping developed in 14th century Italy instead of ancient Greece or Rome, accounting scholar A. C. Littleton describes seven "key ingredients" which led to its creation:

  • Private property: The power to change ownership, because bookkeeping is concerned with recording the facts about property and property rights.
  • Capital: Wealth productively employed, because otherwise commerce would be trivial and credit would not exist.
  • Commerce: The interchange of goods on a widespread level, because purely local trading in small volume would not create the sort of press of business needed to spur the creation of an organized system to replace the existing hodgepodge of record-keeping.
  • Credit:The present use of future goods, because there would have been little impetus to record transactions completed on the spot.
  • Writing: A mechanism for making a permanent record in a common language, given the limits of human memory.
  • Money: The "common denominator" for exchanges, since there is no need for bookkeeping except as it reduces transactions to a set of monetary values.
  • Arithmetic: A method of computing the monetary details of the deal.

Many of these factors did exist in ancient times, but, until the Middle Ages, they were not found together in a form and strength necessary to push man to the innovation of double entry. Writing, for example, is as old as civilization itself, but arithmetic – the systematic manipulation of number symbols – was really not a tool possessed by the ancients. Rather, the persistent use of Roman numerals for financial transactions long after the introduction of Arabic numeration appears to have constrained the earlier creation of double-entry systems (Alexander, 2002).

Nevertheless, the problems encountered by the ancients with their record keeping, control and verification of financial transactions were not entirely different from the types that are experienced today. Governments, in particular, have had strong incentives to maintain careful records of receipts and disbursements – particularly concerning taxes. Moreover, in any society where individuals accumulated wealth, there was a desire by the rich to perform audits on the honesty and skill of slaves and employees entrusted with asset management. Despite these similarities with today’s problems, the absence of the above-listed antecedents to double entry bookkeeping made the job of an ancient accountant extraordinarily difficult. In societies where virtually everyone was illiterate, writing materials costly, numeration difficult and money systems inconsistent, a transaction had to be extremely important to justify keeping an accounting record (Alexander, 2002).

Today, accounting is generally regarded as being the systematic development and analysis of information about the economic affairs of an organization. In fact, one of the most important purposes of accounting is to communicate relevant information between and among producers and users of such information (Riahi-Belkaoui, 1995).

This information may be used in a variety of ways:

  • It can be used by the organization ’s managers to help them plan and control the organization’s operations;
  • It is used by owners and legislative or regulatory bodies to help them appraise the organization ’s performance and make decisions as to its future;
  • The information can be used by owners, lenders, suppliers, employees, and others to help them decide how much time or money to devote to the organization; by governmental bodies to determine how much tax the organization must pay; and,
  • On occasion, customers can use this information in order to determine the price to be paid when contracts call for cost-based payments.

Accounting provides information for all these purposes through the maintenance of files of data, analysis and interpretation of these data, and the preparation of various kinds of reports. Most accounting information is historical—that is, the accountant observes the things that the organization does, records their effects, and prepares reports summarizing what has been recorded; the rest consists of forecasts and plans for current and future periods. Accounting information can be developed for any kind of organization, not just for privately owned, profit-seeking businesses. One branch of accounting, international accounting, deals with the economic operations of entire nations (Shillinglaw, 2004).