Spreadsheets: The Killer App or Accounting Tool of Antiquity?

3-minute read

Part 1 of our Spreadsheets series. Read Part 2 here.

The history of Accounting goes all the way back to 2500 BC, when the rulers of ancient civilizations started to keep accounting records for taxing and spending on public works.

Since then, numerous advancements have been made to the field, including:

  • 500 BC – Egyptians invented the first bead and wire abacus.
  • 423 BC – The auditing profession was born. The reports accountants took were given orally, hence the name “auditor.”
  • 1494 – Luca Pacioli, the father of accounting, discovered that merchants were keeping books of debits—“he owes”—as well as credits—“he trusts.” From this early double-entry accounting system, modern income and balance sheet statements were conceived.
  • 1700-1900 – During the Industrial Revolution, double-entry accounting really took off as industrial companies sought out to gain financing and maintain efficiency through operations. The first accounting organization was developed in New York in 1887. And, in 1896 came the title and professional license of Certified Public Accountant (CPA).

Obviously, these are just a few of the major landmarks of Accounting’s past. But, another achievement impacted accountants astronomically and changed the industry forever: the invention of the electronic spreadsheet.

In 1978, Dan Bricklin, a student at Harvard Business School with a computer programming background, noticed that his accounting professor was constantly having to erase and recalculate formulae on a giant blackboard.

And so, he set out to create VisiCalc, a very early version of the electronic spreadsheet that we’re all familiar with today.

Disrupting an Industry

Technology has changed the way we think about and how we live our lives.

Where we once flipped through a Rolodex to find a contact, we now ask Siri to complete the call. Where we used to contact a travel agent to plan a trip or just stop at the next hotel on our route, we now use Hopper, Airbnb, or Hotel Tonight to book our travel accommodations.

The invention of the electronic spreadsheet had the same type of impact as these other applications, but on the world of Accounting.

It’s hard to imagine for many newer accountants, but where we now have Excel for accounting and finance functions—like financial modeling or flux analysis—we once had to manually calculate all of those numbers.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine a job that doesn’t engage with Excel in one way or another—electronic spreadsheets changed the game.

And the game is still changing.

Love them or hate them, spreadsheets aren’t going anywhere. But, the ways in which they’re most valuable are changing.

Just as VisiCalc disrupted the accounting industry in the ’70s and ’80s, we’re seeing a new wave of accounting innovation today.

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series on spreadsheets to take a walk down memory lane and learn to recognize the value of modern accounting.

And, as we recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of the electronic spreadsheet, make sure to celebrate by watching our National Spreadsheet Day on-demand webinar.