Everyone needs an accountant, or so the saying goes. But why would that be? Accounting’s history can be traced back thousands of years to the cradle of civilisation in Mesopotamia and is said to have developed alongside writing, counting and money. The early Egyptians and Babylonians created auditing systems, while the Romans collated detailed financial information
Some of the first accountants were employed around 300 BC in Iran, where tokens and bookkeeping scripts were discovered. Around the first millennium the Phoenicians invented an alphabetic system for bookkeeping, while the ancient Egyptians may have even assigned someone the role of comptroller.
But the father of modern accountancy is Italian Luca Pacioli, who in 1494 first described the system of double-entry bookkeeping used by Venetian merchants in his Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita. While he was not the inventor of accounting, Pacioli was the first to describe the system of debits and credits in journals and ledgers that is still the basis of today's accounting systems.
With the onset of the industrial revolution in 1760, there was a proliferation of companies and the need for more advanced accounting systems. The development of corporations also created larger groups of investors and more complex structures of ownership, all requiring accounting systems to adapt.
The modern profession also has its roots in Scotland in the mid-1800s when the Institute of Accountants in Glasgow petitioned Queen Victoria for a Royal Charter, so accountants could distinguish themselves from solicitors because, for a long time, accountants had belonged to associations of solicitors, which would offer accountancy in addition to a firm’s legal services. In 1854 the institute adopted ‘chartered accountant’ for its members, a term and demarcation that still carries legal weight globally today.
The petition was signed by 49 Glaswegian accountants and it argued that the accountancy profession had long existed in Scotland as a distinct profession of great respectability and that the small number of practitioners had been rapidly increasing. The petition further highlighted the varied skills required to be a professional accountant – in addition to mathematical skills, an accountant needed to be acquainted with general legal principles, as they were often employed by the courts to give evidence on financial matters – as they still are today.
By the mid-1800s, the industrial revolution in the UK was well under way and London was the financial centre of the world. With the growth of the limited liability company and large-scale manufacturing and logistics, demand surged for more technically proficient accountants capable of handling the growingly complex world of global transactions.
The increasing importance of accountants helped to transform accountancy into a profession, first in the UK and then in the US. In 1904 eight people formed the London Association of Accountants to open the profession to a wider audience of people than was available through the UK’s older associations. After several name changes the London Association of Accountants adopted the name the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) in 1996.
It’s not all been plain-sailing for the accountancy profession. The 21st century has seen some dubious actions by accountants causing large-scale scandals. The Enron scandals in 2001 shook the accountancy industry, for example. Arthur Andersen, one of the world’s largest accounting firms at the time, went out of business.
Subsequently, under the newly introduced Sarbanes-Oxley Act, accountants now face harsher restrictions on their consulting engagements. Yet ironically, since Enron and the financial crisis in 2008, accountants have been greatly in demand, as corporate regulations have increased and more expertise is required to fulfil reporting requirements.