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What is an Abacus?

Article about the abacus, picture of abacus, the salamis table, counting boards, the chinese abacus, where to buy an abacus, and the history and origins of the abacus, and related links for further study. The abacus was one of the earliest counting devices in Asia and parts of Europe. It is still used today for arithmetic: adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing.
[Pictures] [Brief History] [Bibliography] [Related Links]


Pictures of the Abacus

picture of a Chinese abacus
Traditionally the Chinese abacus has 2 beads in the top section over the horizontal bar and 5 beads in the lower section, for each "column". The upper row beads could each represent one hand. The lower columns could represent the 10 fingers.

picture of Chinese abacus
This picture of a black colored abacus shows an abacus with more depth to it than in the previous photograph. Many an abacus was home-made. In recent years an abacus could be purchased online.


A Brief History of the Abacus

This is a brief history of the abacus and a Bibliography follows. The earliest counting devices known to man were his own hands and fingers. If that wasn't enough, things in nature were used like shells, twigs, pebbles, stones, and so forth. It is a good idea to think about the history of arithmetic, mathematics, writing and recorded information. Man's invention of the computer resulted from man's need to quantify, to count and to do mathematic calculations. Long before the computer, in the Roman Empire, Ancient Asia, and other parts of the World, man was inventing easier and faster ways of counting and calculating.
Definition of Abacus
  "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 
Counting Boards and the Salamis Tablet
The use of the abacus was pre-dated by the use of counting boards. A counting board had grooves along which one could slide beads or stones. The beads or stones did not have holes in them but only grooves along which they moved on the counting board. "The oldest surviving counting board is the Salamis tablet (originally thought to be a gaming board), used by the Babylonians circa 300 B.C., discovered in 1846 on the island of Salamis." 2 "The oldest surviving counting board is the Salamis tablet (originally thought to be a gaming board), used by the Babylonians circa 300 B.C., discovered in 1846 on the island of Salamis. " 2  Ancient Counting Boards is a Web site that further chronicles the history and use of counting boards, the Salamis tablet(about 300 B.C.) and the improvements of the early counting tablets, how they evolved into the first Roman abacus.
Around 1000 AD the Aztec peoples invented a device similar to an abacus which used corn kernels threaded through wooden frames. This was known as a Nepohualtzitzin. 3 An Aztec abacus would have seven "beads" by thirteen columns5. This abacus dated to around 900 A.D.6.

In an article attributed to Mr. Du Feibao1 the abacus was invented in China having already been "mentioned in a book of the Eastern Han Dynasty, namely Supplementary Notes of the Art of Figures written by Xu Yue about the year 190 A.D." It was during the Song Dynasty (960-1127) that Zhang Zeduan at Qingming Festival painted his famous long scroll, Riverside Scences, picturing an abacus lying beside an account book. 1 The abacus was known to the Chinese as suan-pan. 3  
Mr. Du Feibao states in his article that the abacus was introduced into Japan during the Ming Dynasty(1368-1644).



  1. Mr. Du Feibao's content at Web site: http://www.chinavista.com/experience/abacus/abacus.html; All Rights Reserved, 1998.
  2. A Brief History of the Abacus; http://www.ee.ryerson.ca:8080/~elf/abacus/history.html; modified 20 March 2005.
  3. http://www.webmythology.com/COMPUTERHISTORY_L1800.htm;
  4. Sunbe, S.; http://users.ju.edu/ssundbe/salamis.html;
  5. Grado, Victor M. "Nepohualtzitzin, A Mesoamerican Abacus" http://www.ironhorse.com/~nagual/abacus: 28 March 1999
  6. Young, Liz; http://fenris.net/~lizyoung/abacus.html


Related Links for Further Study
About the Abacus

Chalk Board Math Resources
Picture of Abacus
The Abacus (ee.ryerson.ca)
Abacus Applet (use this abacus interactively with your mouse)
The Abacus: A History (Liz Young)
The Abacus - Mathematics and the Liberal Arts (T.Hammond, truman.edu)
Performing Addition



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