Ancient China Abacus

Very few people today have even seen an abacus, but in ancient China and even into the 20th century, this was a kind of calculator that was used by almost everyone.

The ancient Chinese developed this ingenious method of using a series of beads to accomplish simple and complex mathematical equations.

If you have an opportunity to see someone using an abacus, you would be astounded at how quickly they can move the beads.

Their fingers and the beads flash so fast that you barely see them. We may call the devices an abacus, but the Chinese call them “suanpan” which means “calculating pan.”

Ancient Chinese abacus

The first mention of the abacus in ancient China was around the 2nd century BC. It was spoken of in a document, although the abacus was probably being used long before that.

The abacus is contains beads that are strung on thin rods of wood or wires. There is a divider that separates the left strings and the right strings.

There are two beads on the rods on one side and five beads on the rods on the other side of the divider.

The Chinese abacus allows the user to do hexadecimal computations, decimal computations, division, multiplication, getting square roots, and cube roots.
An Abacist

Did the Chinese invent the abacus?

Although credit is given to the ancient Chinese for the version of abacus that they use, there is evidence that something like the abacus was used in the ancient Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia where they used pebbles or rocks for their calculations.

Other versions that have occurred were called calculating chips. These were combinations of sticks and were difficult to use. Some scholars give credit for the invention of the abacus to the ancient Romans in 100 CE.
Ancient Chinese Abacus

Who used the Chinese abacus?

Since male children were originally the only ones to receive an education in ancient China, use of the abacus was part of their schooling.

The abacus was mainly used by merchants, but many scholars used them as well as those that studied astronomy.

Just about anywhere there was a need for mathematic calculations, you would see an abacus.

Using a Chinese abacus

Learning to use a Chinese abacus requires practice. The two strung beads represent five each and the five strung beads represent one each.

The rod has a decimal value: the first are ones, the second are tens, the third are hundreds, etc. The first step is to make sure that all beads are away from the central division area.

Any bead that is in the central area is “activated,” which means it has value (like putting a number in your calculator). All beads away from the central area aren’t activated and are ready to use.

If you want to start with a number, let’s say 7, you just move one of the two beads on the string over to touch the divider, then move two of the ones on the “ones string” over to touch the divider.

This totals to “7.” To do any other calculations you need to also use mental calculations.
Salamis Tablet

Abacus around the world

The creation of the abacus expanded to cultures all around the world. Each culture or country developed their own version of the abacus and called it a different name.

The variations depend upon the country, but they could be found everywhere from the different Asian countries, throughout what is now Russia, and then into the Middle East and Europe.

There are versions that have been found that were used by the ancient Aztecs in Mesoamerica, where their versions were made of kernels of maize (corn) instead of beads.

The Incan civilization was also found to use something like the abacus.

  • Before the abacus, people used many ways to try to count including drawing lines in the sand to the use of complex metal or wooden tablets.
  • The design of the Chinese abacus was changed a bit so that there were versions known for each country or culture.
  • Counting boards are different than an abacus. These used stones or beads and were moved between painted or carved lines for get the calculations.

Q&A:

What is the Chinese name for the abacus?

suanpan

What is the translation of the Chinese word for abacus?

calculating pan

Did the Chinese invent the abacus?

not sure – credit is given to the Romans

Name two mathematic calculations that you can do on a Chinese abacus

hexadecimal computations, decimal computations, division, multiplication, getting square roots, and cube roots

Other than beads, what other items were used for calculations in other cultures?

stones, pebbles, seeds

What two Mesoamerican civilizations had similar counting utensils?

Incas and Aztecs