I started my career in public accounting in the 1970s. Our profession then was virtually non-electronic. I can remember paying $300 for my first pocket calculator, which today would sell for $1.
One-write systems were the norm. QuickBooks had not yet been born. Not too many of our clients utilized the NCR 4400 workhorse, capable of producing a so-called “trial balance”. Seventeen column worksheets were used to summarize cash disbursements and cash receipts in order to compile an adjusted trial balance. There was endless footing and cross-footing to arrive at correct totals. We cranked out numbers all day long.
In the late 70s we witnessed major innovations in electronic equipment for accountants. Texas Instruments introduced the TI-58 and TI-59, allowing us to program calculations on a hand-held calculator. The TI-58 sold for ~$100; the TI-59 sold for ~$200. For the life of me, I cannot recall the difference between the two except for the price. I was gooney enough to part with the $100 for the TI-58. At about the same time appeared Tandy’s Z-80 computer, featuring a RAM of 4k for the ~$800 model, and 12k for the ~$1,200 model, utilizing a small casette recorder for storing written programs and data. Of course, you had to write programs in Basic to have the computer process anything at all. Back in the 1970s, many of us were required to take classes in Basic, Fortran, and COBOL in anticipation of the emergence of computer processing in the small business environment. Needless to say, that was a waste of time and money.
Then in the 1980s appeared the IBM-PCs and clones, selling for between $3,000 to $5,500, offering wordprocessing and spreadsheet applications, including Lotus and WordPerfect. Cut-and-pasting, thank God, was virtually eliminated by these innovations. Prior to their advent, all financials were typed. Drafts for the current year were prepared by penciling in the changes on copies of last year’s financials. White, sticky, adhesive, rolled strips were typically used to make final revisions on the typed financials after proofing in order to avoid endless re-typings of entire pages. For major changes, an amended paragraph or section of a footnote or a table was typed on a clean sheet, cut out, and then superimposed with transparent tape over the applicable section of the modified page, after which a “xerox” was made, producing a nearly perfect result: hence, the term, cut-and-paste. Since Xerox was the predominant maker of copiers for small businesses back then, we substituted the term “xerox” for a copy produced by a copier.
We still, however, processed all tax returns manually, computing all tax return schedules and worksheets in pencil, then “xeroxing” our finished work for submission to the tax authorities. Other tax accountants used an outside computer processing service to generate the finished tax returns; however, that was a luxury many small practitioners could not afford.
Soon we all learned DOS (“Disk Operating System”), and read every book ever written by Peter Norton, trying to master its commands. I lost track after DOS 5 or DOS 6 of the number of sequential versions of DOS. In any event, Windows ultimately followed, changing the landscape of the accounting office entirely and ushering in the present generation of computers and users.
It is my understanding that women were not allowed in the Big Eight public accounting world prior to the 1960s; and that certain nationalities, races, and creeds (including Italians) were not employed by them until the 1950s, if not later. I was informed by my professors that phone books had been distributed to them when they were students of accounting in order to hone their skills in adding long columns of numbers since portable calculators were non-existent.
A lot has changed over my lifetime in accounting. I welcome, embrace, and love the technology. But I respect those old timers in accounting. They did it all without Excel, Word, QuickBooks, ProSeries, Lacerte, ProSystems, etc. And they did it very well, indeed. For instance, I worked for a gentleman named James Q. Rice (the “Q” standing for Quackenbush) of Rhodes, Rice and Company, on Lewis Street in Hartford, Connecticut. Lewis Street was the original financial center in Hartford, Connecticut back in the early 1800s. In one building where I had worked on Lewis Street, there was still a glass roof, where the “scribes” worked under natural sunlight, there being, of course, no electric lighting then. I couldn’t imagine working under sunlight from glass above, no less without air conditioning.
Jim Rice was a perfect gentleman, sporting a bow tie to work everyday. He was very kind and respectful to all members of his staff. I shall always remember him smiling with a twinkle in his eye, making accounting as fun as it could be. Jim taught me how to audit, prepare tax returns, compile and review financial statements, and conduct industry analyses for our many small business clients using annual comparatives from Robert Morris Associates. At the end of each review or audit, Jim had me sitting down with the many owners of these businesses, comparing the results of their operations with those of their competitors in the same industry. They all appreciated this service; it was a fantastic marketing tool. Those old time, New England Yankees were always sharp businessmen!
Jim was an avid sailor; in fact, during World War II, he served on a large wooden sailboat in the Coast Guard, patrolling the New England coastline, where he would often hear German submarines going directly underneath his boat. His first love, I suspect, was not accounting but sailing; and his maritime stories filled many a boring, number-crunching afternoon with adventures I only had read about in Melville novels as a youth. Naturally, our accounting firm had an auxilliary office down by the shore in Essex, Connecticut, an old sailing town retaining its Federal era architecture. Every year I had the honor of sending receivable confirmations to noted celebrities belonging to the Essex Yacht Club. What a thrill it was addressing the confirms and receiving replies to and from an assortment of famous people.
I owe much to Jim, and I thank him heartily. I also wish to thank Jim’s two children–Jamie and Prudence–for sending me the above photograph of Jim, taken a number of years after his retirement from public accounting. Jim’s wife, Norma, worked in the office alongside of him as the office manager and was an invaluable member of the firm.
When I became a public accountant, there were three vacancies for every applicant. Consequently, our beginning salaries were twice that of teachers. So I left academia to rake in the shekels. Alas, what a fool I was. I could have spent my forty years drawing Cartesian planes on chalk-dust blackboards to half-asleep high school students, working 183 days per year, leaving tire marks in the parking lot at 2:30 PM every afternoon, while earning a livable salary of $80,000 plus (in today’s dollars) and generous benefits, including the best full medical insurance plan for an entire family, and days off for every possible holiday, and then some.
I guess I am now an old timer, too. And it is almost time for me to pass the baton onto the next generation. But I sometimes wonder what future our country holds for our accounting youth. Will much of our tax and public accounting work be outsourced to India, China, or the Philippines with remote access, VPN, webconference rooms, Skype, computer imaging and processing, and the like? Will there be another breakthrough in technology further reducing the need for human involvement in accounting or, at least, changing the nature of its involvement? But, perhaps, you are in a better position to answer these questions than I am, since you are the present and the future in accounting and I, the past.
This article is provided for informational purposes and is not intended to be construed as legal, accounting, or other professional advice. For further information, please consult appropriate professional advice from your attorney and certified public accountant.
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