"The History of the Abacus"
The History of the Abacus It’s almost impossible to think of a time when we did not use numbers, but there was a time when written numbers did not exist. What do you think the earliest counting device was? You have two of them! That’s right, the human hand and its fingers. When numbers got bigger then 10 or even 20 (if you use your toes), then other items like pebbles and twigs were used to help count. Merchants who traded goods found that pebbles and twigs were good enough to count the number of goods they bought and sold, but calculating the cost of a purchase was a bit harder. This was when the abacus (or abaci) came into the scene. The development of the abacus can be divided into three ages; Ancient Times, Middle Ages and Modern Times; each age saw different materials used in the construction of the abacus and also changes in the design of the abacus. Below is the time line of the abacus starting from circa (about) 500 B.C. (that’s about 2500 years ago) Figure 1: Evolutionary Time Line1 It is important to note that the abacus is a mechanical aid used for counting, not calculating like calculators we use today. The user of the abacus would perform all the calculations in their head, and then use the abacus as a physical aid to keep track of the sum and carry overs. 2 Ancient Time Abacus – 300 B.C to 500 A.D. There isn’t much written about the abacuses of this time. These abacuses were not like the modern abacus; rather these were more counting boards. A counting board is a piece of wood, stone, or metal with carved grooves or painted lines where the beads, pebbles or metal discs were moved up and down. 3 1 http://www.ee.ryerson.ca:8080/~elf/abacus/history.html 2 http://www.ee.ryerson.ca:8080/~elf/abacus/history.html 3 http://www.ee.ryerson.ca:8080/~elf/abacus/history.html Figure 2: Ancient Abacuses Here’s a picture of an actual Roman Hand-abacus counting board. Figure 3: Ancient Roman Hand-Abacus It’s easy to see that there was great demand from the merchants to transition from counting boards to the more common abacus. Since most merchants travelled from shop to shop or town to town, it was very likely that they would lose the beads from abacus. During the Modern time abacus, you see the shift into rods that held the beads in place. Middle Age Abacus – 5 A.D. to 1400 A.D. Wood was the primary material of the Middle Age abacuses. As you can see from the pictures below, the direction of the beads switched from vertical to horizontal. It was also during this time that Arithmetic was created and as it became more popular, the use abacuses began to decrease in Europe. Figure 4: Middle Age Abacuses Modern Time Abacus – 1200 A.D. to Present The Modern time abacus that we know today appeared in China about the time 1200 A.D. The Chinese called it Suan-Pan. As you can see from the picture below, the modern abacus is made of rods placed in a frame with movable beads. Some abacuses have upper and lower levels while others have different colour beads to symbolise the levels. The first Suan-Pan was a two level abacus with two beads on the top level and five beads on the bottom level. This style is called a 2/5 abacus. This 2/5 style survived unchanged until 1850 at which the 1/5 abacus became more popular. (1/5 model have one bead on the top and five beads on the bottom level) It was about 1600 A.D. that the development of the Chinese 1/5 abacus began by the Japanese in Korea; this abacus is called the Soroban. The 1/5 model are rare and the 2/5 are rare outside of China (except in Chinese communities in North America and elsewhere)4 Figure 5: Modern Time Abacuses 4 http://www.ee.ryerson.ca:8080/~elf/abacus/history.html Note of facts: It is thought that the early Christians brought the abacus over to the East from Rome and Greek civilisations. The Suan-Pan and the Roman hand abacus both have the same vertical orientation The Schoty is the Russian abacus and it was invented in the 17th century and is still used today in some parts.