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What is an Abacus? - Definition & History

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  • 0:00 What is an Abacus?
  • 0:56 History of the Abacus
  • 2:10 Chinese, Russian, &…
  • 3:45 Modern Use of the Abacus
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, you will learn the definition of an abacus. You will review the history of the abacus and learn about the oldest abacus known to man. You will also learn about different types, such as the Chinese, Japanese and Russian abacuses, as well as some modern-day uses of the abacus.

What Is an Abacus?

The word abacus is derived from the Latin word abax, which means a flat surface, board or tablet. As such, an abacus is a calculating table or tablet.

The abacus is the oldest device in history to be used for arithmetic purposes, such as counting. It is typically an open wooden rectangular shape with wooden beads on vertical rods. Each bead can represent a different number. For simple arithmetic purposes, each bead can represent one number. So, as a person moves beads from one side to the other, they would count, 'one, two, three', etc.

An abacus can be used to calculate large numbers, as well. The columns of beads could represent different place values. For example, one column may represent numbers in the hundreds, while another column may represent numbers in the thousands.

History of the Abacus

The written numbers (1,2,3,4, etc.) did not exist many, many years ago. But individuals still needed a way to count, especially merchants selling fruits, vegetables and other goods. This is how the abacus came of use. It has been said that the first abacuses were just flat boards. Rocks would be placed on the board and moved about for calculation purposes. Other abacuses had a film of sand or dust on the top of the surface and one would use their finger to make calculations.

Using rocks, seashells and fingers on the abacus could only be helpful to a certain extent. That is when the wooden beads became helpful.

The oldest abacus known to man is the Salamis Tablet, named for the island of which it was found--Salamis Island in Greece--the nearest island to the capital of Athens. It was found in 1846 and can be dated back to 300 BCE. The Roman hand abacus was the next abacus to be discovered. It was used in 300 CE in business, engineering and architecture. This is when the Romans were using Roman numerals. The abacus has come a long way since being used in ancient times by the Greeks and Romans.

Chinese, Russian and Japanese Abacuses

One of the most popular kinds of abacuses is the Chinese abacus, also known as the suanpan. Rules on how to use the suanpan have dated all the way back to the 13th century.

On a Chinese abacus, the rod or column to the far right is in the ones place. The one to the left of that is in the tens place, then the hundreds, etc. So, the columns are different place values and the beads are used to represent different numbers within those place values. For addition, beads on the suanpan are moved up towards the beam in the middle. For subtraction, they are moved down towards the bottom or outer edge of the suanpan. The rules of use are a bit more intricate and complicated, but this is the general idea of how one is used.

The Japanese abacus is called a soroban. Like the suanpan, the soroban is divided into two levels. The modern-day soroban has only one bead on the upper level and four beads on the lower level. For both the suanpan and the soroban, the top beads represent heaven, while the bottom beads represent Earth.

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