Early Computing and the Abacus

Math is an important part of our lives, as the study of measurements, properties, and relationships, using sets of numbers. While there are a number of tools that have been developed to aid in the practice of mathematics and computation, the abacus may be one of the oldest. Students who are interested in learning more about the abacus should first obtain a better understanding of its purpose, uses, and evolution through history. Similarly, comparing the abacus to other computing devices, such as counting boards, can be useful for those who are interested in learning more about this product. Finally, to enhance knowledge of the abacus, students should learn about current uses of the abacus, and where it can take us in the future. Those who have further questions regarding the history and use of the abacus should consider consultation with an expert in the field (such as their teacher), or by delving into the following resources.

What is the Purpose of an Abacus?

To understand the usefulness of the abacus today, it's important to first understand its basic function. As mentioned previously, the first abacus was designed to aid in certain forms of mathematics and computation, especially those that involved the addition of large sums of numbers. Before the development of the abacus-or even the identification of specific numbers-individuals who were interested in adding large sums had to rely on the use of fingers, twigs, pebbles, and other similar objects. The abacus, which allowed merchants and other individuals to identify large sums without the use of these products, was a significant advancement in both the fields of science and business management.

Evolution of the Abacus

According to most historians, the first abacus was developed in approximately 500 BC. The oldest surviving abacus is traditionally referred to as the Salamis Tablet, and is believed to have been created in around 300 BC. The Salamis Tablet is around 149 centimeters in length, 75 centimeters in width, and 4.5 centimeters thick. Several vertical and horizontal lines divide the Salamis Tablet into unique sections, which may have been designed for specific functions.

While the earliest abacuses were formed from wood, later abacuses-such as those created during the Roman Empire-were built primarily from stone or metal. In addition, changes in the type of beads used on abacuses occurred around 500 AD. Though originally positioned and manipulated in a vertical manner, abacus rods were soon changed to horizontal orientation. Finally, further changes in both the structure and function of the abacus occurred in China and other Asian cultures in the mid-12th century. Over time, its popularity as a tool used in everyday computation decreased dramatically, likely due to improvements in the use and understanding of arithmetic and under mathematic concepts.

Differences Between the Counting Board and the Abacus

Often, abacuses are compared to other computing tools, such as the counting board. While these two products can both be used to compute numbers and perform other mathematical tasks, they are quite different in form. As mentioned previously, counting boards are often flat pieces of wood, stone, or metal, which feature painted or carved lines upon which stones, beads, or pebbles can be placed. In contrast, abacuses consisted of rods held together in a sturdy frame. Beads or small pieces of glass could be moved across these rods, and used for basic computing and counting processes. It is important for individuals who are studying to abacus to remember that the device was not an early computer-but rather a tool that could allow the user to keep track of the place they were in their mental computations.

Current and Future Uses of the Abacus

Despite its ancient origins, the abacus is still used by a number of individuals living in all parts of the world on a daily basis. As in years past, the abacus is commonly used as a rudimentary tool for the computation of mathematical equations. In addition, the use of abacuses has recently spread to the realm of childhood development. Many experts in the field of infant and youth development have come to understand the importance of hand-eye coordination and development, and the ways in which the abacus can be used to strengthen these skills. Often, children and infants who struggle with gross motor skills are encouraged to build their coordination through the use of an abacus. In addition, some children-such as those with autism and other similar conditions-may also benefit from the use of tools that rely on repeated physical manipulation.

The abacus has been an important piece of equipment over the past several thousand years, but what does the future hold for this fascinating device? In addition to providing basic computing functions, modern abacuses allow users to perform multiplication and division, and determine the squared and cubed roots of certain numbers. Many experts agree that as humans begin to rely more and more on the use of technologically advanced devices, the science behind abacuses will continue to evolve.