The abacus is a calculator in simple, mechanical form. It consists of a series of rods with beads attached that can be slid from one side to the other. With ten beads on each row, the abacus allows its user to tally items and calculate figures into the many thousands. The origin of the abacus is a source of great debate.
According to Chinese history, the abacus as we know it was invented sometime during the Ming Dynasty by mathematician Cheng Dawei. The Ming Dynasty lasted from 1388 to 1644 and was a period of cultural exchange and economic prosperity, at least in part. The Chinese consider the abacus to be among the great inventions of ancient China and have even created an annual day of celebration around it. The Chinese abacus is used to add, subtract, divide, multiply and find square and cubic roots.
The abacus remains a teaching tool in China and elsewhere in Asia. It is provided to school children as a method of simple calculation. Blind students in particular find the abacus to be a useful and more easily managed way to perform mathematics. Merchants and vendors in many locations throughout Asia also use the abacus to perform day-to-day sales and purchase calculations quickly and efficiently. Its cheap construction from everyday materials and manual operation make it ideal for rural areas where batteries and electronics may not be readily available.
The abacus may not have originated in China at all. Other possible inventors include the Mesopotamians, the Akkadian tribe that occupied the same territory and predated the Mesopotamians, and the Egyptians who were all known to have used abaci. The difference between these ancient abaci and the Chinese version is in the construction of the device. The Chinese abacus is constructed of wood and beads on wire. The early form of the abacus seen in these other ancient civilizations is also referred to as a counting board. It was made of stone and sand, and used carvings to tally rather than moveable stone or wooden beads. If the name "abacus" is taken as a clue, it may lead to the Greek word for dust, "abakos," or the Phoenician word for sand, "abak," from which the word originates.
Information surrounding the origins of the abacus is so varied that even reputable sources like Caroline A. Krebs' 2003 book, "Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the Ancient World," place its appearance anywhere from 600 to 4,000 years ago. There is no concrete evidence one way or another as to who invented the abacus since it dates to early ancient times and the archaeological proof of a first version has not yet been found. China claims responsibility and many experts extend the benefit of the doubt, although the topic remains open should new evidence arise.
- Reyerson University: A Brief History of the Abacus
- ChinaCulture.org: Chinese Abacus: 600 Years and Counting
- Universal Concepts of Mental Arithmetic Systems: What is an Abacus?
- Decatur City Schools: The History of Computers
- Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the Ancient World; Robert E. Krebs and Caroline A. Krebs
- China Culture: Ming Dynasty
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images