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What is a Spreadsheet?

The term spreadsheet (originally "spread sheet") is not new. Accountants and business people have used it for many years to describe a large sheet of paper lined with columns that lays out all the data necessary for financial analyses. Just as word processing software was developed to replace the typewriter, so spreadsheet software has been designed to replace those large columned pages of account and ledger books. While Daniel Bricklin is often credited with inventing the electronic spreadsheet in the late 1970s, the real honour goes to Richard Mattessich for his work in the early 60s. He first published the idea in series of articles and books and then went on to develop the first spreadsheet program designed for mainframe computers.

Accountants once did all calculations manually

Ledger Books versus Electronic Spreadsheets

Before the creation of the electronic spreadsheet, all bookkeeping and accounting was recorded in ledger books filled with columns for numbers or on large sheets of columned paper. (It is still a common practice to call 11 by 17 inch paper "ledger size"). The advantages of using ledger books or spread sheets for accounting were significant. One main advantage was that the materials were commonly available. Ledger books, pens and ink could be purchased in almost any marketplace. Another reason that paper spread sheets still exist in an age of computers is that a bookkeeper can perform most of the standard accounting duties with just a knowedge of basic numeracy. While electronic spreadsheets take more training. The disadvantages, however, are equally compelling. When a bookkeeper needed to correct or change a number in a ledger book, then there often was a lot of recalculation to update the subtotals and totals.

The ability to rapidly recacluate large quantities of numbers is one of the most obvious advantages of electronic spreadsheets. Yet the fact that numbers can be quickly changes also means that they can be quickly erased. While fire might destroy ledger books, the data stored in spreadsheet files on a computer is much more vulnerable to loss or damage. It is therefore necessary to have a clear and easy to use system of backup copies of all important financial data stored in computer files. With multiple copies of a businesses vital data avaiable the threat of someone stealing the data is greater. This is another disadvantage that has increased in the age of large corporate networks and the Internet.

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