Mathematics

# The Invention of the Abacus

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“A counting device: a mechanical device for making calculations consisting of a frame mounted with rods along which beads or balls are moved.” (1)

What it is and its purpose

The evolution of the abacus can be divided into three ages: Ancient Times, Middle Ages, and Modern Times. It was one of the earliest calculators (also termed as a “personal calculator”); built of wood, beads, and was portable; to be carried around easily. The abacus, which is still commonly used today, was invented by the Chinese back in 3000 BC as a substitute for counting with fingers. The Chinese abacus became so popular it spread amongst other countries and is currently being used world-wide. It was however, most commonly used in Rome back in 2400 BC. The abacus used the concept of one single object standing for a collection, or group of objects; also known as the term “positional notation”.

This personal calculator was more of a manual than a mechanical object; helping people keep track of the numbers instead of actually performing the computing as an electronic calculator would nowadays.

Why use it?

The abacus has great purpose and is still extremely useful till this day. Although much larger than a regular electronic calculator, it can still be carried around in a back pack or purse.

The difference between a counting board and an abacus

“It is important to distinguish the early abacuses (or abaci) known as counting boards from the modern abaci. The counting board is a piece of wood, stone or metal with carved grooves or painted lines between which beads, pebbles or metal discs were moved. The abacus is a device, usually of wood (plastic, in recent times), having a frame that holds rods with freely-sliding beads mounted on them.” (2)

Both the abacus and the counting board are mechanical aids used for counting; and are not actual electronic calculators. They do not record the number nor provide an individual with the answer to a calculation. Rather the person operating the abacus stores calculations in their head and utilizes the abacus solely to keep track of the sums.

Information on the first counting board

“In outdoor markets of those times, the simplest counting board involved drawing lines in the sand with ones fingers or with a stylus, and placing pebbles between those lines as place-holders representing numbers (the spaces between 2 lines would represent the units 10s, 100s, etc.). The more affluent people could afford small wooden tables having raised borders that were filled with sand (usually colored blue or green). A benefit of these counting boards on tables was that they could be moved without disturbing the calculation— the table could be picked up and carried indoors.” (2) Therefore, the invention of the abacus provided people with a real breakthrough and a great help for counting.

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