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Above: The compact Japanese Soroban | Below: the Chinese 2/5 Abacus (2 beads on top section, 5 bead on bottom section) is still widely used in China, while the Japanese continue to use their 1/4 style 

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The soroban a calculating device that is derived from the ancient Chinese abacus. Some sources say the abacus was invented in Mesopotamia or Greece about 2,600 years ago and that the Chinese copied it via interactions along the Silk Route. However, the earliest abacus was developed in China about 5,000 years ago.

From the Idea-finder:

The Chinese abacus was developed about 5000 years ago. It was built out of wood and beads. It could be held and carried around easily. The Chinese abacus (called suanpan in Chinese) was  first described in a 190 CE book of the Eastern Han Dynasty, namely Supplementary Notes on the Art of Figures written by Xu Yue.  However, in the sophisticated form that we know today was an innovation during the late Song Dynasty (960-1279) and the early Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368). Lu Ban Mu Jing gave the most detailed description of the making and specifics of the abacus. The abacus drawn in the Shuxue Tonggui by Ke Shangqian in the 16th century was the same as current abacus. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), abaci became popular and spread to East Asian countries.

Known as the Fifth Invention of Ancient China, the abacus can perform addition, subtraction, division and multiplication; it can also be used to obtain square roots and cubic roots. The abacus was so successful that its use spread form China to many other countries. The abacus does not actually do the computing, as today’s calculators do. It helps people keep track of numbers as they do the computing.

Invention Milestones:

  • The earliest counting device was the human hand and its fingers.
  • Early man counted by means of matching one set of objects with another set (stones and sheep).- – Early tables, named abaci, formalized counting and introduced the concept of positional notation.
  • c3000BC An early form of the abacus, built using beads strung on wires is used in China
  • 2700–2300 BC saw the first appearance of the Sumerian abacus, a table of successive columns which delimited the successive orders of magnitude of their sexagesimal number system
  • c1000 BC Chinese counting boards originated
  • c500 BC Greeks and Romans are using counting devices based on the same principles as the abacus
  • c300 BC the Salamis tablet (originally thought to be a gaming board), a marble slab counting board used by the Babylonians circa 300 B.C., discovered in 1846 on the island of Salamis.
  • c300 AD The Chinese begin development of the abacus as a mathematical device
  • c500 AD The abacus is used in Europe
  • The Chinese abacus is said have emerged in Korea around 1400 AD. Koreans call it jupan (주판), supan (수판) or jusan (주산)
  • In 1592, Cheng Da Wei published the Suanfa tong zong (General source of computational methods). The Chinese abacus and zhusuan (reckoning by the abacus) are known to have been created by a famous mathematician Cheng Dawei of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), who is known as “the great master of zhusuan”. (In Japan, he is worshipped as “the God of Arithmetics,” and August 8 was established as the “abacus festival” in commemoration of him.) This timeframe is strange because the Korean Chinese-derived abacus is said to have arrived a hundred years earlier…suggesting that the abacus predates Cheng Da Wei’s invention.
  • The Japanese are believed to have been imported the abacus or soroban (算盤, そろばん, lit. “Counting tray”), from China around 1600.
  • 17th c. drawing of a Roman abacus reveals its usage (see abacus-online-museum) and similarity to the Japanese 1/4 abacus.
  • The 1/4 abacus, which is suited to decimal calculation, appeared ca. 1930, which became widespread as the Japanese abandoned hexadecimal weight calculation that was still common in China.

The 1/4 Roman-abacus-Soroban puzzle

While the original 2/5 abacus in Japan was derived from the Chinese abacus, an intriguing possibility is raised that the 1/4 soroban shows a connection to the Roman abacus — due to the similarity the Roman abacus and the Chinese version that was also in use in China. With one bead above and four below the bar, the systematic configuration of the Roman abacus is coincident to the modern Japanese Soroban. (Roman relations with China are known from 166 with the arrival of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius’ envoy in China and Roman glass beads found in a 5th c. nobleman’s tomb in Kyoto, Japan suggest more widespread trade with Romans than previously thought. Further investigations into the extent of contacts between China and the West may in the future reveal more…

A replica of the 2nd-5th c. Roman abacus (Source: The Abacus Online Museum)

Given the timeframe of the Roman abacus coincident with Romans reaching China, is it possible that the Roman abacus have been derived from the Chinese abacus, rather than from Greek and Etruscan sources as previously thought? Though there is no firm evidence, it has been expressed that the Roman abacus predates the Chinese abacus, The Greek Salamis tablet (see below) does not resemble the Roman or Chinese abacuses as closely as those resemble each other.

An early photograph of the Salamis Tablet, 1899. The original is marble and is held by the National Museum of Epigraphy, in Athens Wikipedia photo

Modern Times

The abacus is still manufactured in Japan today even with the proliferation, practicality, and affordability of pocket electronic calculators. The use of the soroban is still taught in Japanese primary schools as part of mathematics, primarily as an aid to faster mental calculation. Using visual imagery of a soroban, one can arrive at the answer in the same time as, or even faster than, is possible with a physical instrument

References:

The Abacus (Idea Finder)

Abacus (Wikipedia)

The Abacus: A Brief History of the Abacus is useful because it has pictorial comparisons of the various counting systems, as well as of the Salamis Tablet, but it is not up-to-date on the earliest forms of the abacus.

Sigma Soroban offers classes and exams in English out of California, USA

Osaka Soroban Association

The Abacist’s Guide to the Internet is an excellent easy-to-navigate webpage that has compiled many websites and web resources related to the abacus. Unfortunately, it has not been updated beyond 2005.

The History of Computing: the Babylonians used a dust abacus c. 2400 BC

Abacus (ChineseCulture.org)

Abacus, a bibliography | Jorn’s Abacus Online Museum page

The Roman abacus

Xabacus:

“The Roman hand-abacus predates the Chinese abacus and is very similar
to the later Japanese abacus, but seems to have fallen out of use with
the Fall of the Roman Empire (at least 3 are in existence). The Roman
abaci are brass plates where the beads move in slots. In addition to
the normal 7 columns of beads, they generally have 2 special columns on
the right side. In two examples: the first special column was for
12ths (12 uncia (ounces) = 1 as), and had one extra bead in the bottom
deck. Also the last column was a combination of halves, quarters, and
twelfths of an ounce and had no slot in the top deck and 4 beads at the
bottom (beads did not have to come to the top to be counted but at one
of 3 marked points where the top bead was for halves, the next bead for
quarters, and the last two beads for twelfths). In another surviving
example: the 2 special columns were switched and the combination column
was broken into 3 separate slots. If available, decimal input is
ignored.

The Russian abacus was invented in the 17th century, here the beads are
moved from right to left. It has colored beads in the middle for ease
of use. Quarters represent 1/4 Rubles and are only present histori-
cally on the Russian abacus (Schoty). Some of the older Schoty have a
extra place for the 1/4 Kopek (quarter percent) as well as the 1/4
Ruble (quarter).”