Academic journal article The Accounting Historians Journal

Costing Pioneers: Some Links with the Past*

Academic journal article The Accounting Historians Journal

Costing Pioneers: Some Links with the Past*

Article excerpt

Abstract: When the author was working on the history of cost accounting at the beginning of the 1950s, he entered into correspondence with some of the pioneers who were developing the subject at the beginning of this century, or with men who had been personally associated with those pioneers. This paper places on record the more important biographical information that that correspondence gleaned about (in alphabetical order) Alexander Hamilton Church, Harrington Emerson, Emile Garcke and J. M. Fells, G. Charter Harrison, J. Slater Lewis, Sir John Mann and George P. Norton. It also comments briefly on their significance for the development of costing.

In a letter seeking biographical information that I wrote in November 1950 to G. Charter Harrison, one of the great names in the history of cost accounting, I said this:

The history of costing, when it comes to be written, ought, I think, to be more than a bald account of ideas. Some information about the men who formed the ideas ought surely to be available to a later generation.

I take it that the same thought has inspired this conference, and I welcome the opportunity to take part in it.

It is now over forty years since I started work on the long paper that became "The Historical Development of Cost Accounting", the introductory essay of my Studies in Costing, published in 1952. I believe that that volume was the first anthology on cost accounting, and it was preceded in that genre only by William Baxter's Studies in Accounting, published two years earlier.

The research for my essay, carried out in London, relied heavily on the resources of the library of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, which has an unrivalled collection of material on the history of accounting; on the library of the London School of Economics; and on the library of the Patent office in London. That library is a goldmine for material on nineteenth century technology, both British and American. It must be remembered that much of the early work on cost accounting was done by engineers, not accountants, and was published in engineering journals. But I did not rely only on library research - of course in those days there was no such thing as computer search. I had notices published in the professional journals in Britain, asking anyone with personal knowledge of the persons who had worked in the costing field in its early days to write to me. Several of them did, giving me information, sometimes followed up in interviews, about their own work, but also giving me leads to other pioneers, to whom I could then write. The result was the collection of more biographical material than I could use in my essay. I have been waiting for forty years to find a suitable forum in which I could present it, and this conference has at last provided one.

So far as possible, I shall proceed chronologically, speaking first about the earliest writers I studied, and going forward from there. However, it is not easy to do that, because the trails cross; and in any case, most of the developments that I shall be discussing took place within a span of no more than 25 years.


When I was studying accounting as a young man in London in the early 1930s, a book on cost accounting first published in 1887 was still in use as a text. I refer to Factory Accounts: Their Principles and Practice, by Emile Garcke and John Manger Fells. This book went through seven editions, and in J. M. Fells' obituary in 1926 it was said to be "still regarded as a standard book on the subject." Yet Ronald Edwards, in a lecture he gave in 1937, quoted a review of the first edition in The Accountant as saying that the book was more theoretical than practical, that it was pedantic and involved "in the nature of a work on political economy." It did, in fact, attract the attention of the leading British economist of that time, Alfred Marshall, who referred to it approvingly in his Principles of Economics. …

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