Abacus – Mathematics History – Learn More

Abacus – Mathematics History – Learn More


The Salamis Tablet - one of the oldest surviving counting boards
The Salamis Tablet – one of the oldest surviving counting boards

Abacus has a fascinating history! Are you a teacher that is preparing for a lesson or a parent who wants to help your child understand the abacus? Read on!

Numbers are part of our daily lives and we count everything using numbers. But can you imagine counting something without using numbers?  You might find it interesting that there was a time on earth when the numbers didn’t exist at all but people still counted.

How did they do it?

Well, in the beginning they used their fingers as a counting device but that helped them count to a maximum of 10.

Maybe it was good system at home but if you were a merchant how would you keep track of large amounts of goods that you buy and sell on a daily basis?

There were many different devices that were invented to help solve the problem. People used pebbles and sea shells to count large numbers. Many of them could not be preserved as ancient people used the sand on the ground as the counting space and simply drew lines with their fingers or a stick and placed pebbles on it to represent amounts.

Counting Boards – the first “tablets”

Chinese Suan Pan
Chinese Suan Pan

At some point in history people were introduced to counting boards. One of the oldest surviving counting boards was the Salamis Tablet made of marble that was used by Babylonians circa 300 BCE. Isn’t it a strange thing that we have made a full circle to using ‘tablets’ again. I guess the only difference is that ours today are somewhat more advanced.

In circa 300 CE Roman culture introduced the Roman Hand-Abacus. It was the first portable counting board. Even though it was now portable, it was however less capable,

The Roman Hand-Abacus
The Roman Hand-Abacus

base-10 version of the previous Babylonian counting board. During that time the Romans were trading with China and it is possible that it was then that China was introduced to this device by the Romans and as a result went onto the development of their own counting device, the Suan Pan, known today as abacus.

The first Chinese abacus was invented around 500 BC. The abacus as we know it today was used in China around 1300 AD. The use of an abacus was spread widely around the planet throughout the years but was eventually replaced with calculators and computers.

Genghis Khan

genghis_khan-2Did you know that the old leaders of the Mongolian Empire, the Khan’s such as Genghis Khan, contributed significantly to the development of the abacus? When counting soldiers, a portion of sand was evened out and soldiers placed in rows on each side. The first on the one side would have blue stones representing a one. The next would have red stones representing ten. The next yellow stones representing 100 and so on. The Khan could then accurately count his soldiers by having them march past in single file. For each soldier marching past, a blue stone was thrown down.

After ten had gone past, a soldier on the other side would pick up the ten and then one red stone was thrown down. After ten red stones were down, these were picked up and a yellow stone thrown down and so on. This went on until all the soldiers had marched past. The number of stones, [probably stones representing thousands would then be collected, plus any remaining colored stones for the lower amounts and that would be how many soldiers he had.

The problem then encountered was when it snowed. The process could not be done as the stones would get lost in the snow so this ‘counting board’ was made into a large portable frame with metal rods and balls replacing the stones. As it evolved, it became smaller and smaller until the result was the hand held abacus we know today.

Abacus today

In our modern day abacus is still being used in some places such as Japan and Russia. China also still uses it extensively.abacus

Today it is also used around the planet as an arithmetic tool in primary schools to assist children with the very basics of counting numbers. It is still considered the best tool in teaching kids how to count and for them to get the reality of amounts.

The English word ‘ABACUS’ comes from the Greek work ‘ABAX’ which means ‘counting board’.

Understanding of the words helps in understanding of the subject. Download the free ebook “Three Reasons Why a Quality Maths Dictionary is Vital to Success” 

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