In 1994, accountants from around the world gathered in an Italian village called San Sepulcro to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the first book written on double-entry accounting. The book was written by an Italian monk, Luca Pacioli (pronounced pot-CHEE-oh-lee).
The first accounting book actually was one of five sections in Pacioli's mathematics book titled "Everything about Arithmetic, Geometry, and Proportions." This section on accounting served as the world's only accounting textbook until well into the 16th century. A new english interpretation of Pacioli's treatise was published recently and can be ordered from the Pacioli Society, Albers School of Business and Economics, Seattle University, Seattle, WA 98122. (Phone: 206.296.5690 Fax: 206.296.2464). In addition, the Society has a 30-minute video of Pacioli's life.
Because Pacioli was a Franciscan monk, he might be referred to simply as Brother Luca. While Brother Luca is often called the "Father of Accounting," he did not invent the system. Instead, he simply described a method used by merchants in Venice during the Italian Renaissance period. His system included most of the accounting cycle as we know it today. For example, he described the use journals and ledgers, and he warned that a person should not go to sleep at night until the debits equalled the credits! His ledger included assets (including receivables and inventories), liabilities, capital, income, and expense accounts. He demonstrated year-end closing entries and proposed that a trial balance be used to prove a balanced ledger. Also, his treatise alludes to a wide range of topics from accounting ethics to cost accounting.
Pacioli was about 49 years old in 1494 - just two years after Columbus discovered America - when he returned to Venice for the publication of his fifth book, Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita (Everything About Arithmetic, Geometry and Proportion). It was written as a digest and guide to existing mathematical knowledge, and bookkeeping was only one of five topics covered. The Summa's 36 short chapters on bookkeeping, entitled De Computis et Scripturis (Of Reckonings and Writings) were added "in order that the subjects of the most gracious Duke of Urbino may have complete instructions in the conduct of business," and to "give the trader without delay information as to his assets and liabilities" (All quotes from the translation by J.B. Geijsbeek, Ancient Double Entry Bookkeeping: Lucas Pacioli's Treatise, 1914).
Numerous tiny details of bookkeeping technique set forth by Pacioli were followed in texts and the profession for at least the next four centuries, as accounting historian Henry Rand Hatfield put it, "persisting like buttons on our coat sleeves, long after their significance had disappeared." Perhaps the best proof that Pacioli's work was considered potentially significant even at the time of publication was the very fact that it was printed on November 10, 1494. Guttenberg had just a quarter-century earlier invented metal type, and it was still an extremely expensive proposition to print a book.
Accounting practitioners in public accounting, industry, and not-for-profit organizations, as well as investors, lending institutions, business firms, and all other users for financial information are indebted to Luca Pacioli for his monumental role in the development of accounting.
* by L. Murphy Smith, March 26, 2002