Margaret SANKEY

The heaven and earth design of the abacus has remained unchanged for centuries.

Considered to be the first computer, the abacus has been used since ancient times by a number of civilizations for basic arithmetical calculations. It is still used as a reliable reckoner (and one that does not require electricity or batteries) by merchants and businesspeople in parts of Asia and Africa.

The abacus, or counting plate (suan pan), is a manual computing device used since ancient times in China as well as in a number of ancient civilizations. The Latin word abacus has its roots in the Greek word abax, meaning slab, which itself might have originated in the Semitic term for sand. In its early Greek and Latin forms the abacus was said to be a flat surface covered with sand in which marks were made with a stylus and pebbles.

The Chinese abacus as we know it today evolved to become a frame holding thirteen vertical wires wires with seven beads on each wire. A horizontal divider separates the top two beads from the bottom five, sometimes referred to as the heaven and the earth beads. The beads served as markers representing quantity, and the beads’ position on the vertical wires represented value.

A skilled abacus user performs addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division quickly and easily, without having to depend on electricity to produce a readout; the “readout” itself cannot be lost or erased except manually. Because of the traditional Chinese use of 16 as an important standard of measure, the Chinese abacus is particularly useful for calculations using a base number system of 2 and 16.

Chinese sources document wide use of abaci by 190 CE, with popularization during the Song dynasty (960–1279) and printed instructions for their use appearing in the 1300s during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). By the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the Chinese abacus had taken on its modern form and had become an integral part of business and financial accounting. This basic counting machine spread by the 1600s to Japan and then to eastern Russia, with small modifications in the number of beads above and below the divider.

Among storekeepers and small businesses in China, the abacus remained a standard piece of office equipment until the 1980s. A good-quality abacus is generally about 2 feet wide by 1 foot tall and made of sturdy brass with hardwood beads.

Further Reading

A brief history of the abacus. Retrieved November 25, 2008, from

Dilson, J. (1968). The abacus: A pocket computer. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Menninger, K. (1992). Number words and number symbols: A cultural history of numbers. (P. Broneer, Trans.). New York: Dover.

Pullan, J. M. (1968). The history of the abacus. London: Hutchinson and Company.

Source: Sankey, Margaret. (2009). Abacus. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 3–4. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

An abacus sits on the countertop in a neighborhood grocery store. Small shops in China, like this one in the basement of an apartment block in the Eastern District of Beijing, still use the abacus to add sums. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Abacus (Suànpán ??)|Suànpán ?? (Abacus)

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