By Bob Schneider

The name that looms largest in early accounting history is 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. Of course, businesses and governments had been recording business information long before the Venetians. But it was Pacioli who 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.

The industrial revolution spurred the need for more advanced cost accounting systems, and the development of corporations created much larger classes of external capital providers - shareowners and bondholders - who were not part of the firm's management but had a vital interest in its results. The rising public status of accountants helped to transform accounting into a profession, first in the United Kingdom and then in the United States. In 1887, thirty-one accountants joined together to create the American Association of Public Accountants. The first standardized test for accountants was given a decade later, and the first CPAs were licensed in 1896.

The Great Depression led to the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 1934. Henceforth all publicly-traded companies had to file periodic reports with the Commission to be certified by members of the accounting profession. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and its predecessors had responsibility for setting accounting standards until 1973, when the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) was established. The industry thrived in the late 20th century, as the large accounting firms expanded their services beyond the traditional auditing function to many forms of consulting.

The Enron scandals in 2001, however, had broad repercussions for the accounting industry. One of the top firms, Arthur Andersen, went out of business and, under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, accountants faced tougher restrictions on their consulting engagements. One of the paradoxes of the profession, however, is that accounting scandals generate more work for accountants, and demand for their services continued to boom throughout the early part of the 21st century. (For details on this and other scandals see, The Biggest Stock Scams Of All Time.)

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