How to Use an Abacus

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  • 0:04 What Is an Abacus?
  • 0:38 Using the Abacus
  • 1:39 Calculating With the Beads
  • 2:31 More Examples
  • 3:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yuanxin (Amy) Yang Alcocer

Amy has a master's degree in secondary education and has taught math at a public charter high school.

Before people had calculators, people had abacuses. Even today, some people find that using an abacus lets them calculate problems faster than with a calculator! Learn how in this lesson.

What Is an Abacus?

Before people started using calculators, people were using a tool called the abacus. An abacus is like a manual calculator that has sliding beads that represent numbers. The Chinese and Japanese use an abacus with the beads lined up vertically. This version of the abacus can be seen all over the world.

Another version has beads lined up horizontally instead, with ten beads on each row instead of only seven as seen in the Chinese abacus. For this lesson, we'll focus on the Chinese abacus as that is the more common abacus of the two.

Using the Abacus

To read the abacus, you'll look at which beads are moved where. Each column represents a different place value. The column to the far right represents the single units place value. The column next to that represents the tens place value. The middle column represents the hundreds place value.

The beads on the bottom are the numbers 1 to 5, while the beads on top represent 5 and 10 respectively. You move the top beads down and the bottom beads up to represent a number. If you pushed one bottom bead up in the tens column, you would have the number 10. If you pushed two bottom beads up from the hundreds column, you would have 200. If you pushed one top bead down from the tens column, you would have 50. To represent the number 15, you'd push the top two beads on the far right column down and push the bottom five beads up. You can also use two columns to make the number 15. You could push one bottom bead up from the second column from the right and five bottom beads up in the far right column.

Calculating With the Beads

Now, let's see how you can use the abacus to help you solve your math problems.

Say you wanted to calculate 11 + 45. You would start by pushing the beads to make 11. You push one bottom bead up from the tens column and one bottom bead up from the ones column.

Now to add 45, all you need to do is to add that many beads to your abacus. You would move four bottom beads up from the tens column and one top bead down in the ones column. You would move one top bead down as those top beads represent 5 each. Also, there aren't enough bottom beads to move up in the ones column.

Your answer then is the number represented on your abacus. Reading the abacus gives you 56 (50 from the tens column and 5 + 1 = 6 from the ones column). With enough practice, you'll be able to make calculations with your abacus quickly and easily.

More Examples

Let's try a subtraction problem now.

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