The first known tools used to aid arithmetic calculations were: bones (used to tally items), pebbles, and counting boards, and the abacus, known to have been used by Sumerians and Egyptians before 2000 BC. Except for the Antikythera mechanism (an "out of the time" astronomical device), development of computing tools arrived near the start of the 17th century: the geometric-military compass (by Galileo), logarithms and Napier bones (by Napier), and the slide rule (by Edmund Gunter).
The abacus (plural abaci or abacuses), also called a counting frame, is a calculating tool that was in use in the ancient Near East, Europe, China, and Russia, centuries before the adoption of the written Arabic numeral system. The exact origin of the abacus is still unknown. The abacus essentially consists of several rows of movable beads or other objects, which represent digits. One of two numbers is set up, and the beads are manipulated to implement an operation involving a second number (e.g., addition), or rarely a square or cubic root.
In earliest use, the rows of beads could be loose on a flat surface or sliding in grooves. Later the beads were made to slide on rods of some sort built into a frame, allowing faster manipulation. Abacuses are still made, often as a bamboo frame with beads sliding on wires. In the ancient world, particularly before the introduction of positional notation, abacuses were a practical calculating tool.
There are distinctive modern implementations of the abacus. Some designs, like the bead frame consisting of beads divided into tens, are used mainly to teach arithmetic, although they remain popular in the post-Soviet states as a tool. Other designs, such as the Japanese soroban, have been used for practical calculations even involving numbers of several digits. For any particular abacus design, there are usually numerous different methods to perform calculations, which may include the four basic operations, and also square and cube roots. Some of these methods work with non-natural numbers (numbers such as 1.5 and 3⁄4).
Although today calculators and computers are usually used instead of abacuses, abacuses remain in common use in some countries. Merchants, traders and clerks in some parts of Eastern Europe, Russia, China and Africa use abacuses, and they are still used to teach arithmetic to children. Some people who are unable to use a calculator because of visual impairment may use an abacus.
The use of the abacus in Ancient Egypt is mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus, who writes that the Egyptians manipulated the pebbles from right to left, opposite in direction to the Greek left-to-right method. Archaeologists have found ancient disks of various sizes that are thought to have been used as counters. However, wall depictions of this instrument have not been discovered.
During the Achaemenid Empire, around 600 BC the Persians first began to use the abacus. Under the Parthian, Sassanian and Iranian empires, scholars concentrated on exchanging knowledge and inventions with the countries around them – India, China, and the Roman Empire, when it is thought to have been exported to other countries.
The earliest archaeological evidence for the use of the Greek abacus dates to the 5th century BC. Also, Demosthenes (384 BC–322 BC) talked of the need to use pebbles for calculations too difficult for your head. A play by Alexis from the 4th century BC mentions an abacus and pebbles for accounting, and both Diogenes and Polybius mention men that sometimes stood for more and sometimes for less, like the pebbles on an abacus. The Greek abacus was a table of wood or marble, pre-set with small counters in wood or metal for mathematical calculations. This Greek abacus saw use in Achaemenid Persia, the Etruscan civilization, Ancient Rome and, until the French Revolution, the Western Christian world.
A tablet found on the Greek island Salamis in 1846 AD (the Salamis Tablet), dates back to 300 BC, making it the oldest counting board discovered so far. It is a slab of white marble 149 cm (59 in) long, 75 cm (30 in) wide, and 4.5 cm (2 in) thick, on which are 5 groups of markings. In the centre of the tablet is a set of 5 parallel lines equally divided by a vertical line, capped with a semicircle at the intersection of the bottom-most horizontal line and the single vertical line. Below these lines is a wide space with a horizontal crack dividing it. Below this crack is another group of eleven parallel lines, again divided into two sections by a line perpendicular to them, but with the semicircle at the top of the intersection; the third, sixth and ninth of these lines are marked with a cross where they intersect with the vertical line. Also from this time frame, the Darius Vase was unearthed in 1851. It was covered with pictures including a "treasurer" holding a wax tablet in one hand while manipulating counters on a table with the other.
The Chinese abacus, known as the suanpan (算盤/算盘, lit. "calculating tray"), is typically 20 cm (8 in) tall and comes in various widths depending on the operator. It usually has more than seven rods. There are two beads on each rod in the upper deck and five beads each in the bottom. The beads are usually rounded and made of a hardwood. The beads are counted by moving them up or down towards the beam; beads moved toward the beam are counted, while those moved away from it are not. One of the top beads is 5, while one of the bottom beads is 1. Each rod has a number under it, showing the place value. The suanpan can be reset to the starting position instantly by a quick movement along the horizontal axis to spin all the beads away from the horizontal beam at the centre. The earliest known written documentation of the Chinese abacus dates to the 2nd century BC.
The prototype of the Chinese abacus appeared during the Han Dynasty, and the beads are oval. The Song Dynasty and earlier used the 1:4 type or four-beads abacus similar to the modern abacus including the shape of the beads commonly known as Japanese-style abacus.
In the early Ming Dynasty, the abacus began to appear in the form of 1:5 abacus. The upper deck had one bead and the bottom had five beads.
In the late Ming Dynasty, the abacus styles appeared in the form of 2:5 The upper deck had two beads, and the bottom had five beads.
Various calculation techniques were devised for Suanpan enabling efficient calculations. There are currently schools teaching students how to use it.
In the long scroll Along the River During the Qingming Festival painted by Zhang Zeduan during the Song dynasty (960–1297), a suanpan is clearly visible beside an account book and doctor's prescriptions on the counter of an apothecary's (Feibao).
The similarity of the Roman abacus to the Chinese one suggests that one could have inspired the other, as there is some evidence of a trade relationship between the Roman Empire and China. However, no direct connection can be demonstrated, and the similarity of the abacuses may be coincidental, both ultimately arising from counting with five fingers per hand. Where the Roman model (like most modern Korean and Japanese) has 4 plus 1 bead per decimal place, the standard suanpan has 5 plus 2. Incidentally, this allows use with a hexadecimal numeral system (or any base up to 18) which may have been used for traditional Chinese measures of weight. (Instead of running on wires as in the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese models, the beads of Roman model run in grooves, presumably making arithmetic calculations much slower.
Another possible source of the suanpan is Chinese counting rods, which operated with a decimal system but lacked the concept of zero as a place holder. The zero was probably introduced to the Chinese in the Tang dynasty (618–907) when travel in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East would have provided direct contact with India, allowing them to acquire the concept of zero and the decimal point from Indian merchants and mathematicians.
The normal method of calculation in ancient Rome, as in Greece, was by moving counters on a smooth table. Originally pebbles (calculi) were used. Later, and in medieval Europe, jetons were manufactured. Marked lines indicated units, fives, tens etc. as in the Roman numeral system. This system of 'counter casting' continued into the late Roman empire and in medieval Europe and persisted in limited use into the nineteenth century. Due to Pope Sylvester II's reintroduction of the abacus with modifications, it became widely used in Europe once again during the 11th century This abacus used beads on wires, unlike the traditional Roman counting boards, which meant the abacus could be used much faster.
Writing in the 1st century BC, Horace refers to the wax abacus, a board covered with a thin layer of black wax on which columns and figures were inscribed using a stylus.
One example of archaeological evidence of the Roman abacus, shown here in reconstruction, dates to the 1st century AD. It has eight long grooves containing up to five beads in each and eight shorter grooves having either one or no beads in each. The groove marked I indicates units, X tens, and so on up to millions. The beads in the shorter grooves denote fives –five units, five tens etc., essentially in a bi-quinary coded decimal system, related to the Roman numerals. The short grooves on the right may have been used for marking Roman "ounces" (i.e. fractions).
The Abhidharmakośabhāṣya of Vasubandhu (316-396), a Sanskrit work on Buddhist philosophy, says that the second-century CE philosopher Vasumitra said that "placing a wick (Sanskrit vartikā) on the number one (ekāṅka) means it is a one while placing the wick on the number hundred means it is called a hundred, and on the number one thousand means it is a thousand". It is unclear exactly what this arrangement may have been. Around the 5th century, Indian clerks were already finding new ways of recording the contents of the Abacus. Hindu texts used the term śūnya (zero) to indicate the empty column on the abacus.
In Japanese, the abacus is called soroban (算盤, そろばん, lit. "Counting tray"), imported from China in the 14th century. It was probably in use by the working class a century or more before the ruling class started, as the class structure did not allow for devices used by the lower class to be adopted or used by the ruling class. The 1/4 abacus, which removes the seldom-used second and fifth bead became popular in the 1940s.
Today's Japanese abacus is a 1:4 type, the four-bead abacus was introduced from China in the Muromachi era. It adopts the form of the upper deck one bead and the bottom four beads. The top bead on the upper deck was equal to five and the bottom one is equal to ones like the Chinese or Korean abacus, and the decimal number can be expressed, so the abacus is designed as one four abacus. The beads are always in the shape of a diamond. The quotient division is generally used instead of the division method; at the same time, in order to make the multiplication and division digits consistently use the division multiplication. Later, Japan had a 3:5 abacus called 天三算盤, which is now the Ize Rongji collection of Shansi Village in Yamagata City. There was also 2:5 type abacus.
With the four-bead abacus spread, it is also common to use Japanese abacus around the world. There are also improved Japanese abacus in various places. One of the Japanese-made abacus made in China is an aluminium frame plastic bead abacus. The file is next to the four beads, and the "clearing" button, press the clearing button, immediately put the upper bead to the upper position, the lower bead is dialled to the lower position, immediately clearing, easy to use.
The abacus is still manufactured in Japan today even with the proliferation, practicality, and affordability of pocket electronic calculators. The use of the soroban is still taught in Japanese primary schools as part of mathematics, primarily as an aid to faster mental calculation. Using visual imagery of a soroban, one can arrive at the answer at the same time as, or even faster than, is possible with a physical instrument.
The Chinese abacus migrated from China to Korea around 1400 AD. Koreans call it jupan (주판), supan (수판) or jusan (주산). The four beads abacus( 1:4 ) was introduced to Korea Goryeo Dynasty from China during the Song Dynasty, later the five beads abacus (5:1) abacus was introduced to Korean from China during the Ming Dynasty.
Some sources mention the use of an abacus called a nepohualtzintzin in ancient Aztec culture. This Mesoamerican abacus used a 5-digit base-20 system. The word Nepōhualtzintzin [nepoːwaɬˈt͡sint͡sin] comes from Nahuatl and it is formed by the roots; Ne – personal -; pōhual or pōhualli [ˈpoːwalːi] – the account -; and tzintzin [ˈt͡sint͡sin] – small similar elements. Its complete meaning was taken as: counting with small similar elements by somebody. Its use was taught in the Calmecac to the temalpouhqueh [temaɬˈpoʍkeʔ], who were students dedicated to take the accounts of skies, from childhood.
The Nepōhualtzintzin was divided into two main parts separated by a bar or intermediate cord. In the left part, there were four beads, which in the first row have unitary values (1, 2, 3, and 4), and in the right side, there are three beads with values of 5, 10, and 15 respectively. In order to know the value of the respective beads of the upper rows, it is enough to multiply by 20 (by each row), the value of the corresponding account in the first row.
Altogether, there were 13 rows with 7 beads in each one, which made up 91 beads in each Nepōhualtzintzin. This was a basic number to understand, 7 times 13, a close relation conceived between natural phenomena, the underworld and the cycles of the heavens. One Nepōhualtzintzin (91) represented the number of days that a season of the year lasts, two Nepōhualtzitzin (182) is the number of days of the corn's cycle, from its sowing to its harvest, three Nepōhualtzintzin (273) is the number of days of a baby's gestation, and four Nepōhualtzintzin (364) completed a cycle and approximate a year (11/4 days short). When translated into modern computer arithmetic, the Nepōhualtzintzin amounted to the rank from 10 to the 18 in floating point, which calculated stellar as well as infinitesimal amounts with absolute precision, meant that no round off was allowed.
The rediscovery of the Nepōhualtzintzin was due to the Mexican engineer David Esparza Hidalgo, who in his wanderings throughout Mexico found diverse engravings and paintings of this instrument and reconstructed several of them made in gold, jade, encrustations of the shell, etc. There have also been found very old Nepōhualtzintzin attributed to the Olmec culture, and even some bracelets of Mayan origin, as well as a diversity of forms and materials in other cultures.
George I. Sanchez, "Arithmetic in Maya", Austin-Texas, 1961 found another base 5, base 4 abacus in the Yucatán Peninsula that also computed calendar data. This was a finger abacus, on one hand, 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4 were used; and on the other hand 0, 1, 2 and 3 were used. Note the use of zero at the beginning and end of the two cycles. Sanchez worked with Sylvanus Morley, a noted Mayanist.
The quipu of the Incas was a system of coloured knotted cords used to record numerical data, like advanced tally sticks – but not used to perform calculations. Calculations were carried out using a yupana (Quechua for "counting tool"; see figure) which was still in use after the conquest of Peru. The working principle of a yupana is unknown, but in 2001 an explanation of the mathematical basis of these instruments was proposed by Italian mathematician Nicolino De Pasquale. By comparing the form of several yupanas, researchers found that calculations were based using the Fibonacci sequence 1, 1, 2, 3, 5 and powers of 10, 20 and 40 as place values for the different fields in the instrument. Using the Fibonacci sequence would keep the number of grains within any one field at a minimum.
The Russian abacus, the schoty (Russian: счёты, plural from Russian: счёт, counting), usually has a single slanted deck, with ten beads on each wire (except one wire, usually positioned near the user, with four beads for quarter-ruble fractions). Older models have another 4-bead wire for quarter-kopeks, which were minted until 1916. The Russian abacus is often used vertically, with each wire from left to right like lines in a book. The wires are usually bowed to bulge upward in the centre, to keep the beads pinned to either of the two sides. It is cleared when all the beads are moved to the right. During manipulation, beads are moved to the left. For easy viewing, the middle 2 beads on each wire (the 5th and 6th bead) usually are of a different colour from the other eight beads. Likewise, the left bead of the thousands wire (and the million wire, if present) may have a different colour.
As a simple, cheap and reliable device, the Russian abacus was in use in all shops and markets throughout the former Soviet Union, and the usage of it was taught in most schools until the 1990s. Even the 1874 invention of mechanical calculator, Odhner arithmometer, had not replaced them in Russia; according to Yakov Perelman, even in his times, some businessmen attempting to import such devices into the Russian Empire were known to give up and leave in despair after being shown the work of a skilled abacus operator. Likewise, the mass production of Felix arithmometers since 1924 did not significantly reduce their use in the Soviet Union. The Russian abacus began to lose popularity only after the mass production of microcalculators had started in the Soviet Union in 1974. Today it is regarded as an archaism and replaced by the handheld calculator.
The Russian abacus was brought to France around 1820 by the mathematician Jean-Victor Poncelet, who served in Napoleon's army and had been a prisoner of war in Russia. The abacus had fallen out of use in western Europe in the 16th century with the rise of decimal notation and algorithmic methods. To Poncelet's French contemporaries, it was something new. Poncelet used it, not for any applied purpose, but as a teaching and demonstration aid. The Turks and the Armenian people also used abacuses similar to the Russian schoty. It was named a coulba by the Turks and a choreb by the Armenians.
In Western countries, a bead frame similar to the Russian abacus but with straight wires and a vertical frame has been common (see image). It is still often seen as a plastic or wooden toy.
The wireframe may be used either with a positional notation like other abacuses (thus the 10-wire version may represent numbers up to 9,999,999,999), or each bead may represent one unit (so that e.g. 74 can be represented by shifting all beads on 7 wires and 4 beads on the 8th wire, so numbers up to 100 may be represented). In the bead frame shown, the gap between the 5th and 6th wire, corresponding to the colour change between the 5th and the 6th bead on each wire, suggests the latter use. Teaching multiplication, e.g. 6 times 7 may be represented by shifting 7 beads on 6 wires.
The red-and-white abacus is used in contemporary primary schools for a wide range of number-related lessons. The twenty bead version, referred to by its Dutch name rekenrek ("calculating frame"), is often used, sometimes on a string of beads, sometimes on a rigid framework.