Chinese Abacus, the Miraculous Calculator


From the Greek word "ABAX", meaning "calculating board" or "calculating table". Invented by the Chinese, the first record of the abacus was from a sketch of one in a book from the Yuan Dynasty (14th Century). Its Mandarin name is "Suan Pan" which means "caculating plate". Chinese abacus is often referred to as the "first computer" because it was used as a mathematic model for early electronic computers. The abacus can be used to add, subtract, multiply and divide as well as work with sophisticated mathematical problems such as fractions and square root.

In Asian countries it is not unusual to see shopkeepers and street vendors using an abacus to calculate invoices, especially where electricity is not convenient. Some elderly residents actually prefer the abacus over newer electronic devices. The calculations made on an abacus are immediate, with the device retaining the results in "visual storage" much like a computer display. All one has to do is read off the answer. Some say that since it has a better "keyboard" than the Western calculators, an abacus is actually faster when working with large amounts of numbers.

While Westerners are used to seeing "miniature" abacus models in gift shops, usually made of brass, the preferred models are larger (around 14" wide), with frame and beads made of good quality, well-seasoned wood. The Abacus has a horizontal center bar with rows of beads above and below (Chinese style has 2 beads above and 5 beads below the bar). Numbers are calculated from this dividing bar. The result (answer) is then read back using the same center bar, from left to right. The beads are moved (added or subtracted) by moving them to or from this center bar, and they are used to "store" the numerical values.

Each vertical row of beads represents a multiple of 10 (10,000, 1,000, 100, 10, and 1). The beads below the center bar represent one unit of that row (the beads in the rightmost column represent 1 unit, the beads in the row next to the rightmost column represent 10 units each, etc.) The beads in each row above the center dividing bar represent five units of that row.

The beads must be pushed against the center bar to be counted (the bottom beads must be pushed upwards to add value, the top beads must be pushed downwards to add value). To subtract values, the beads are pushed away from the center divider bar.