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Fascinating facts about the invention of the
Abacus
by the Chinese in 3000 BC.

ABACUS
AT A GLANCE:

The Chinese abacus was developed about 5000 years ago. It was built out of wood and beads. It could be held and carried around easily. The abacus was so successful that its use spread form China to many other countries.
The abacus does not actually do the computing, as today's calculators do. It helps people keep track of numbers as they do the computing.
THE STORY
RELATED INFO
BOOKS
VIDEOS
WEB SITES
WHERE TO FIND
HOW IT WORKS
DID YOU KNOW?
Invention: abacus
Function: noun / ab·a·cus
Definition: A counting device: a mechanical device for making calculations consisting of a frame mounted with rods along which beads or balls are moved
Inventor: Chinese in c3000 BC
 
Milestones:
- The earliest counting device was the human hand and its fingers.
- Early man counted by means of matching one set of objects with another set (stones and sheep).-  - Early tables, named abaci, formalized counting and introduced the concept of positional notation.
BC
c3000 An early form of the abacus,
built using beads strung on wires is used in the Orient
c1000 Chinese counting boards originate

c500 Greeks and Romans are using counting devices based on the same principles as the abacus 
AD
c300 The Chinese begin development of the abacus as a mathematical device
c500 The abacus is used in Europe
CAPs:
Abacus, Chinese, Greeks, Romans, Orient, Babylonians, Personal Computer,
SIPs: abaci, addition, subtraction, mathmatics, calculator, positional notation, symbol manipulation,
algorithm, invention, history, inventor of, history of, who invented, invention of, fascinating facts.
The Story:
Calculation was a need from the early days when it was necessary to account to others for individual or group actions, particularly in relation to maintaining inventories (of flocks of sheep) or reconciling finances. Early man counted by means of matching one set of objects with another set (stones and sheep). The operations of addition and subtraction were simply the operations of adding or subtracting groups of objects to the sack of counting stones or pebbles. Early counting tables, named abaci, not only formalized this counting method but also introduced the concept of positional notation that we use today.

The next logical step was to produce the first "personal calculator"—the abacus—which used the same concepts of one set of objects standing in for objects in another set, but also the concept of a single object standing for a collection of objects—positional notation.
The Chinese abacus was developed about 5000 years ago. It was built out of wood and beads. It could be held and carried around easily. The abacus was so successful that its use spread form China to many other countries. The abacus is still in use in some countries today.

The abacus does not actually do the computing, as today's calculators do. It helps people keep track of numbers as they do the computing. People who are good at using an abacus can often do calculations as quickly as a person who is using a calculator

This one-for-one correspondence continued for many centuries even up through the many years when early calculators used the placement of holes in a dial to signify a count—such as in a rotary dial telephone. Although these machine often had the number symbol engraved alongside the dial holes, the user did not have to know the relationship between the symbols and their numeric value.

Primitive people also needed a way to calculate and store information for future use. To keep track of the number of animals killed, they collected small rocks and pebbles in a pile. Each stone stood for one animal. Later they scratched notches and symbols in stone or wood to record and store information. Only when the process of counting and arithmetic became a more abstract process and different sizes of groups were given a symbolic representation so that the results could be written on a "storage medium" such as papyrus or clay did the process of calculation become a process of symbol manipulation.

TO LEARN MORE

RELATED INFORMATION:
History of Computing   from The Great Idea Finder

ON THE BOOKSHELF:
100 Inventions That Shaped World History
by Bill Yenne, Morton, Dr. Grosser (Editor) / Paperback - 112 pages / Bluewood Books (1983) 
This book contains inventions from all around the world from microchips to fire. This is a really good book if you are going to do research on inventions.

The History of Science and Technology
by Bryan Bunch, Alexander Hellemans / Hardcover: 768 pages / Houghton Mifflin Company; (2004)
Highly browsable yet richly detailed, expertly researched and indexed, The History of Science and Technology is the perfect desktop reference for both the science novice and the technologically advanced reader alike.

The Abacus
by Jesse Dilson / Paperback-160 pages / St. Martin's Press; (April 1995)
The new edition of Dilson's marvelous book is even more user-friendly that the original; it comes with a working abacus that can be used in concert with its easy-to-follow and clear illustrations.
The Universal History of Computing: From the Abacus to the Quantum Computer
by Georges Ifrah / Hardcover - 356 pages / John Wiley & Sons  (October 2000)
The author has great respect for our ancestors and their work, and he transmits this feeling to his readers with humor and humility. His timelines, diagrams, and concordance help   the reader who might be unfamiliar with foreign concepts of numbers and computation keep up with his narrative.

ON THE SCREEN:
Computers
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / History Channel / Less than $25.00 / Also VHS
The incredible breakthroughs and refinements that have marked the development of the computer are so familiar that they have lost some of their power to amaze


ON THE WEB:

Abacus
From the history of the computer. Presented by The Computer Society.
(URL: www.computer.org/history/development/early.htm)
Abacus The Art of Calculating with Beads
The art of counting with beads. History and instructions on how to use an abacus. They even have a built in Java Tutor. Selected by Scientific American as a winner of the 2003 Sci/Tech Web Awards.
(URL: www.ee.ryerson.ca:8080/~elf/abacus/
)
The LEGO Abacus
Instructions and complete plans on how to build an abacus (photo above) from LEGO parts.
(URL: www.ee.ryerson.ca/~elf/abacus/lego/
)
A Brief History of the Abacus
It is difficult to imagine counting without numbers, but there was a time when written numbers did not exist. The earliest counting device was the human hand and its fingers.
(URL: www.ee.ryerson.ca/~elf/abacus/history.html
)
The Earlest Calculating Machine In The World
Abacuses are easy to make, handy to carry around and quick to give the answers, provided one knows how to move the beads. They have been in use, therefore, down to this day.
(URL: www.chinavista.com/experience/abacus/abacus.html)

Abacus Device Images & Photos
Abacus has a long history and therefore experienced many changes during its lifetime. Originally born in China, but it very quickly spread all over the world. During these migrations it was natural to change its original form.
(URL: www.abacus.ca/abacus-images.php)
History of the Crammer Abacus fot the Blind
 Some rehabilitation centers were beginning to teach abacus operation to blind students. At about this time, the United States Internal Revenue Service was exploring the hiring of blind people to serve as taxpayer assistors.
(URL: home.europa.com/~paulg/abacus.history.html)

WHERE TO FIND:
Working Abacus
Home / by American Science & Surplus /
B0001IU8AS / Less than $8.00
Computer Revolt. Tired of being beholden to the computer mega-corporations? Get back to basics with the original computer. This fine wood abacus is 12" x 6", with (13) sets of (5) balls and (13) sets of (2). Computing speed is considerably slower than even an old 286, but then it's guaranteed to never need rebooting. Instructions included. Made in China, naturally.

HOW IT WORKS:
Businessmen needed a way to tally accounts and bills. Somehow, out of this need, the abacus was born. The abacus is the first true precursor to the adding machines and computers which would follow. It worked somewhat like this:

DID YOU KNOW?

  • 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.
  • The abacus is still used in China and Japan.
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Reference Sources in BOLD Type. This page revised March 6, 2006.
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