While the first “thinking machine” was invented in the 1940s, it took a good 30 years before computers were small and affordable enough to become common in the workplace. When it happened, though, CPAs were among the earliest adopters, and The CPA Journal documented the profession’s ride through computer revolution.
The Journal ran its first feature pieces on CPAs and computers in the 1960s. The frequency of such pieces grew through the next decade, and December 1984 saw the introduction of a new regular column, “The Practitioner & the Computer.” The earliest installments, written by David R. and Mary V. Campbell, introduced CPAs to the basics of hardware and software. Spreadsheets were covered in March 1985; a discussion of Lotus 1-2-3’s macros feature noted that “it has proved difficult for some users to master,” a sentiment modern readers can still sympathize with.
The costs and functionality of technology in the 1980s were very different from today. In the December 1987 column, Ronald E. Kaplan of ZeBrack and Morgan CPAs described his firm’s 1984 acquisition of a local area network. The setup included “six work stations, 512K [kilobytes] of random access memory [RAM], [and] 62 megabytes of disk storage, all at a cost of just under $20,000.” In comparison, the computer on which this article was written has 16 giga bytes of RAM and one tera byte of disk storage—and when new cost just under $1,800.
In the August 1988 column, William M. Winsor introduced readers to email, describing it as “considerably faster” than more traditional methods. The “entire process” of sending price and availability information to a customer “takes approximately one hour”—counting time for the secretary to write up the information in a formal letter. Clearly, a full understanding of the technology’s capabilities was still to come.
One virus in circulation caused terminal fires by altering a monitor’s settings.
With all this new technology came new dangers. The July 1989 column included James D. Cashell and Jeri B. Wagoner’s tutorial on computer viruses. The risks were already evident; one virus in circulation caused terminal fires by altering a monitor’s settings. Virus shield software was available to combat this new threat, as were “antidote” programs. Computers with infected RAM could even be “cured” by powering them off; sadly, this does not work on modern computers.
By 1995, the Internet was the latest topic. The April 1995 Journal‘s cover story, “CPAs on the Information Superhighway” by Tim Beauchemin and John Graves, gave a brief history of the Internet and explained such things as “modems” and “home pages.” In the same issue’s “The CPA & the Computer” column, Simon Petravick, John Gillett, and Nathan Griffin provided more specific advice for CPAs. Alongside instructions on how to click hyperlinks were descriptions of early web services like Gopher and Usenet. While describing Usenet’s misc.taxes and other groups, the authors made the insightful observation, “The Internet clearly has both professional and personal applications!”
In the November 1995 annual technology issue, Sal Sestito provided a look at the next new frontier: wireless data and cellular technology. “What we’re entering,” Sestito said, “is a whole new era of computing and communications—what some suggest is just the beginning of an age in which information resources are always assumed to be available at any time, any place.” That era is in full swing today, with information density and speeds that dwarf anything imaginable in the 1980s or ’90s, all available in devices that fit in a pocket. The CPA Journal was there at the beginning, and continues to chart the progress of technology for the profession today.