The Tools of Our Trade – From Pebbles to PC’s (Part 1)

The ancient city of Jericho, on the Palestinian left bank, is estimated to be at least 11,000 years old. It is widely believed that the traders and people of Jericho used a barter system until about 7,500 B.C. when simple tokens, often pebbles and clay balls (with various shapes) came to represent inventory figures for agricultural goods including wheat, sheep and cattle. This was one of the first uses of simple tools to record financial transactions and this system was soon expanded to produce an ancient version of what we now know as a balance sheet.

Thousands of years later, in Sumerian cities, early bookkeepers accounted for currency, precious metals and goods by marking clay tablets with the end of sticks. These tablets were dried and hardened in order to form physical records.

Abaci and Counting Boards

Merchants who traded goods not only needed a way to count goods they bought and sold, but also to calculate the cost of those goods. Until numbers were invented, counting devices were used to make everyday calculations. The abacus is one of many counting devices invented to help count large numbers.

The abacus is essentially a mechanical aid for counting large numbers, they are not, as is often perceived, an early form of a calculator as the person operating the abacus performs calculations in their head and uses the abacus as a physical aid to keep track of the sums etc.

The abacus first appeared about 5,000 years ago in Sumeria, and was eventually used by several ancient societies.

Another very early form of accounting “tool” was papyrus, a forerunner of our trusted ledger no doubt! Papyrus was used for record-keeping and administration, such as tax receipts and court documentation, although literature, religious texts and music were also recorded. Rulers used accounting methods to account for their wealth as well as tribute payments from other kingdoms.

The Calculator!

In 1642, the Renaissance saw the invention of the mechanical calculator by Wilhelm Schickard and Blaise Pascal.

 Pascal’s Calculator

Schickard’s machine could perform basic arithmetic operations on integer inputs. His letters to Kepler, discoverer of the laws of planetary motion, explain the application of his “calculating clock” to the computation of astronomical tables.

Shickard is affectionately known as the “Father” of the computer age… well, maybe great, great, great Grandfather!

So really, there have been very few physical tools to aid the accountant and in fact it was not until the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution that real developments began to occur. The Industrial Revolution brought about an immense increase in commercial activity and in international banking and brought about a real need for automatic calculators.

The first major advance in automatic calculators was made by the French engineer and industrialist Charles-Xavier Thomas of Colmar, director of a Paris insurance company, who in 1820 invented a calculator which he named the Arithmometer.

This really was a major breakthrough in technology and development moved on rapidly throughout the 19th century.

 Burroughs Adding and Listing Machine

Other decisive developments in this area occurred between 1885 and 1893, when an American, William S. Burroughs, invented and perfected his Adding and Listing Machine, the first mechanical calculator with keys and a printer, which was also practical, reliable, robust and perfectly adapted to the requirements of the banking and commercial operations of the time. For these reasons, his machines enjoyed a remarkable worldwide success until the outbreak of the First World War.

Next stop…. electronics!! Watch this space!

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