Guest Author - Caroline Baker
The abacus, often referred to as the "first computer", can be found in many cultures and around the world. Each version of the abacus is slightly different, varying in number of beads and size as well as how to it operates.
The Chinese abacus, known as the suan pan (or "calculating plate") is setup in two sections, the top and bottom. The bottom portion has five beads and the top has two. The bar in the middle is where things are actually counted. Thus, starting position, or zeroing out the abacus is when all the beads are pushed away from the center, as in below:
Every column represents a factor of 10 starting from right to left. Thus beads in the farthest right represent 1-9. The column to the immediate left represent 10-19. And so on. Those along the bottom represent single digits while those along the top represent five. To start counting, pull the beads towards the center, like such:
When, say the bottom column of any row is filled with all five, that row is cleared (beads are pulled down) and one bead from the top is brought to the bar.
When two beads from the top are present, representing that column is now at the max, the two beads are brought up and one bead from the single digit is brought up in the column to the immediate left to represent a factor of ten.
Thus, the movement of the beads is fairly uniform for simple functions progressing through the factors. If you clear the beads down on the bottom, then you must have moved something down from the top, if you clear the beads at the top then you must have moved a bead up from the bottom of the next row. With a single hand, normally the index and/or middle finger and thumb, one would move the beads. And with practice, can move the beads in both linear directions at once depending on the function being called.
The Chinese abacus has several techniques which make even complex multiplication and division mathematical functions simple to perform. Skilled abacus users can actually perform most math functions faster than someone on a modern calculator. Their movements are smooth sliding the beads up and down with a slight clinking sound at each movement.
In China, one may still find the abacus in use. Especially in rural areas where electricity is costly, unreliable, and hard to come by, it is not uncommon for shop owners to still use this device for their daily accounting. It’s still a powerful tool that provides a visual tracking of accounts necessary for daily transactions.
If you’d like to purchase a Chinese abacus, you can click here.