This article was contributed by H.G. Ashbee in 2010


The origins of the commercial use of the spreadsheet in accounting? by H.G. Ashbee

It was a chance remark - the origin of which I cannot recall - that set me to thinking that I might have pre-dated the wide­spread use of this form of book-keeping.

The exercise of gathering together the information made me realise two things: - Firstly, having kept all my records from 1958 to date, only to find much had been lost! Secondly, on just how many occasions I had improved bookkeeping for previous employers! Back in the early fifties I worked as a records and invoicing clerk to a company supplying the dairies and farmers over a wide area. This involved goods bought and representatives commission records but also the invoicing which included glass bottles which were despatched in 'returnable' wooden crates; for this purpose a completely separate 'Crates book was kept which entailed again writing almost all the details which were already written in the sales records i.e. name, address, number of crates and price of each and the value thereof. The only thing different was 'goods’ were not entered but 'returned’ crates were and credit then shown back in the sales ledgers of each rep. I dispensed with the crates book and simply added two columns in the sales book. Since the values of crates remained constant over long periods. I simply showed total values, For example, it does not take a genius to see that if crates were noted in the heading @ 5V- and value £10.00 that 40 crates went. Conversely, if 24 of those were returned a credit of £6.00 could be entered. This system of course could always be applied as crates were always in a round shilling! These figures are of course pre-decimal but values could still be applied today!

Own home hunting in early married days took me to work in a large furnishing departmental store where the books were 14 weeks behind in settling accounts and some 18 weeks behind with the trial balances. This state of affairs meant the loss of hundreds of pounds in lost "prompt payment discounts”. Within seven weeks 1 had bulked up payments in order of priority, catching up 7day accounts- then 10 day, then 30 day; leaving net accounts till last and thereby back on track and saving the company considerable sums! In that same seven weeks I also brought the trial balances up to date as well as giving all the departmental 'Buyers' their 'spent' and 'available' monthly allocation figures. This company closed after some many months as its one remaining owner from a family business died and the 50-year lease reached expiry. A sequel to that was that at a later date the company secretary supplied references for the acquisition of the lease of my first shop!

From there I joined another family owned furnishers shop which, in common with a general practice, 'sold' a percentage of their Hire purchase values to investor companies. The offers of 'buy-in' varied from these companies as they competed with each other and at my joining there existed four different record books for the four investors. Checking the accounts could only be achieved at the rate of one book each month for customer arrears. That could allow many weeks as accounts were paid weekly in those days.  I was able to get through all four ledgers - rule a line - and show immediately if the account was 'up-to-date’’, in arrears, or 'ahead' as some customers would pay in round figure sums. Accounts in those days were divided over 12 or 18 or 24 months and could work out to odd coppers say 1/11d so some people would pay 2/-. This then enabled me to put all four ledgers on the boss's table for his decision as to what 'chaser' letters were to be sent out.

When the opportunity arose in 1958 to open my own shop I asked the Secretary from my earlier employment if he would give me a reference, which he gladly gave. Although this was some many miles from my last employer I did not choose to open with furniture but opened as a gift shop with a borrowed dummy wedding cake along with various gift items as my first window dressing. However, in my great surprise many of the 'Reps' whom I had known only to say good morning to them had found me and persuaded me to sell furniture! This caused an overlap in my thinking and led to my becoming what was possibly the smallest departmental store in the country with the slogan "everything for the home''. In those days many of the major suppliers had an "agency only' policy but by the end of the year I was a stockist for all the leading companies. These included such names as Kosset Carpets who were at that time particularly choosy ... their representative actually told me that they only considered stores that could sell a thousand pounds worth a month or more because pattern books were too expensive to give out 'willy nilly' he was astonished when I offered to buy the pattern books and offered me the lower price ranges. I rejected that and opted for the three top ranges and went on to sell three thousand pounds worth in a matter of a few weeks and employing my own carpet fitters! The next call from him was much more affable! I also became an appointed agent for "'Myers Bedding" /Slumberland'. etc., etc. Price control was also in force at that time until in the '60's Edward Heath abolished that. I personally deplored his action as it led on to more and more cheapjack' companies and many of the "quality' companies compromised quality for price to compete and we have never really recovered from it to this day. <span-us" style="; ;">

Well, I have sped over much ground to give you a brief picture so now to deal specifically with Spreadsheet":- When I opened my own business in 1958 I decided that I had no need of the heavy leather bound books that I had carried around for years so I bought an ordinary stiff cover feint ruled book and drew columns down the pages which the spreadsheet pattern became. I also realised that as I received a statement at the end of each month listing the invoices there was no need to enter every invoice so I kept them in an alphabetical file only entering them when paying. Even when 7 day or 10 day discounts were due I would often find that two or three would have come within the time frame to pin together. To keep an eye on that they had their own 'prompt payment’ file. In all cases I would then make a one line entry prefixing with the year - month - line number thus; - for 1958 ... 58/4/10 =year 1958 - month April - line number 10, you will see from the records you now have that this can still work all these years later. Any back detail I needed to refer to was at my fingertips in full on the invoices. Unfortunately very few of the surviving documents have allowed me to demonstrate it completely but fortunately a few invoices did survive. 1986 shows best how final computer accounts were presented to the accountant. My great regret is that when we moved in 1994 many of my papers and books went astray in storage arid my most regrettable loss is of those earlier records particularly the original from 1958! <span-us" style="; ;">


My early accountant was Pat Lee who, when she first saw my books, said. "Where did you get this system'"? 1 replied. "Designed it, invented il or whatever. Why? What is wrong with it"? She replied "Nothing. I will take you on"! 2years later I had occasion to visit her office and noticed the vast majority of books lying along the top of the 4 drawer units behind her desk-were all slim books only a couple were still the old type. I said, "I saved you some effort Pat... saved you carrying all those heavy-books about!! She said. "Well there was no point in letting a good system go to waste was there"? She passed the books to other accountants and I believe that led to the spread of the system. Of course I never realised the importance of what I had done.

  <span-us" style="; ;">H G Ashbee 31st August 2010

Legal documents including solicitors declaration and the cover of the official accountants declaration relating to this claim can be viewed HERE in PDF format
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The original papers can be seen by appointment at The Centre For Computing History, The Counting House, High Street, Haverhill, Suffolk. CB9 8NT.

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Memories - The origins of the commercial use of the spreadsheet in accounting?

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