The humble Abacus made its way through the years across all major civilizations. The abacus we use today was derived from a lot of cultures. Before we can peruse through its usage let us look at how its form has changed and the similarities and differences between the forms.
The earliest mention of Abacus is from the Mesopotamian civilization, around 2700 – 2300 BC. It was called the Sumerian abacus and consisted of a table with successive columns of numbers. It was based on the sexagesimal number system, a primitive system with sixty as its base. It could not function beyond basic addition and subtraction and do not have the capacity to handle complex numbers or calculations.
The Persians began using the abacus about 600 BC, during the Achaemenid empire. Considering that they had a massive trade connection with the rest of the world, it is believed that the abacus may have spread to the other continents via this civilization.
The Greeks developed their own abacus about the 5th Century BC which was a wooden or marble table. Parallel lines were cut into the upper half of the tablet which was intersected by a single vertical line. The bottom half had 11 parallel lines with a vertical line intersecting through them. The intersection of the 3rd, 6th, and 9th lines had a cross-cut into them. Pebbles were used as counters by moving them along these lines to perform the calculations. Inscriptions and paintings depict accountants of those ages carrying a similar abacus counting system in their hands.
The Chinese Abacus is first mentioned at about 2nd century BC and is called the Suanpan. The Chinese abacus is a variation of the modern abacus. Its style changed through the Ming Dynasty from 1:5 to 2:5 ratio. The Chinese abacus consisted of a wooden frame with two partitions having seven or more rods. The beads were also of wood with 1 or 2 beads in the upper portion and 5 in the lower portion. This school of thought is still practiced in China.
The Roman Civilization’s best example of an abacus is documented in the 1st Century AD. It is quite similar to a Chinese abacus except for the materials used. The Roman abacus is a tablet with two sets of grooves. The beads were set into the grooves and could be pushed along the slot in a similar manner to the Chinese abacus.
The Indians had also caught on to the Abacus which is no surprise because of the highly advanced mathematical progress. Sadly there are no remains of this tool. What little we know is picked up from random mentions in the texts like Vasubandhu. There are indications to confer that the Indian abacus had an empty rod to denote Sunya or Zero, a concept that is attributed to the Indian civilization.
The Japanese Abacus was derived from the Chinese version. It was called the Soroban and was built in the 1:4 ratio. The upper bead was called the Heavenly bead and the lower four beads were called the Earth beads. Complex calculations involving the basic mathematical functions of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division could be performed on it, even with large numbers.
The Korean Abacus was influenced by both Chinese and Japanese cultures called the Supan. They embraced both the 1:4 and 1:5 ratio versions which have persisted till today.
The Russians developed their own abacus system in the 1900s. It consisted of a single wooden frame with wires on it. There were no partitions. Each rod had 10 beads of which the middle two beads were of a different color. Unfortunately, despite being a popular device it has dropped out of the European systems who started using modern calculators much before other countries did.
The modern version of the Abacus mimics the 1:4 or 2:5 versions of the Chinese and Japanese cultures which were proven the most effective at calculations. Despite being an ancient piece of technology, its versatile uses and benefits have kept it alive till today. It has become popular after school activity for children to stimulate their intellectual and emotional growth.