The abacus, also called a counting frame, is a calculating tool used primarily in parts of Asia for performing arithmetic processes. Today, abaci are often constructed as a bamboo frame with beads sliding on wires, but originally they were beans or stones moved in grooves in sand or on tablets of wood, stone, or metal. The abacus was in use centuries before the adoption of the written modern numeral system and is still widely used by merchants, traders and clerks in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. The user of an abacus is called an abacist.
The use of the word abacus dates before 1387 AD, when a Middle English work borrowed the word from Latin to describe a sandboard abacus. The Latin word came from Greek ἄβαξ abax "board strewn with sand or dust used for drawing geometric figures or calculating"(the exact shape of the Latin perhaps reflects the genitive form of the Greek word, ἄβακoς abakos). Greek ἄβαξ itself is probably a borrowing of a Northwest Semitic, perhaps Phoenician, word akin to Hebrew ʾābāq (אבק), "dust" (since dust strewn on wooden boards to draw figures in). The preferred plural of abacus is a subject of disagreement, with both abacuses and abaci in use.
Some scholars point to a character from the Babylonian cuneiform which may have been derived from a representation of the abacus. It is the belief of Carruccio (and other Old Babylonian scholars) that Old Babylonians "may have used the abacus for the operations of addition and subtraction; however, this primitive device proved difficult to use for more complex calculations".
The use of the abacus in Ancient Egypt is mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus, who writes that the Egyptians manipulated the pebbles from right to left, opposite in direction to the Greek left-to-right method. Archaeologists have found ancient disks of various sizes that are thought to have been used as counters. However, wall depictions of this instrument have not been discovered, casting some doubt over the extent to which this instrument was used.
During the Achaemenid Persian Empire, around 600 BC the Persians first began to use the abacus. Under Parthian and Sassanian Iranian empires, scholars concentrated on exchanging knowledge and inventions by the countries around them – India, China, and the Roman Empire, when it is thought to be expanded over the other countries.
The earliest archaeological evidence for the use of the Greek abacus dates to the 5th century BC. The Greek abacus was a table of wood or marble, pre-set with small counters in wood or metal for mathematical calculations. This Greek abacus saw use in Achaemenid Persia, the Etruscan civilization, Ancient Rome and, until the French Revolution, the Western Christian world.
A tablet found on the Greek island Salamis in 1846 AD dates back to 300 BC, making it the oldest counting board discovered so far. It is a slab of white marble 149cm (59inches) long, 75cm (30inches) wide, and 4.5cm (01.8inches) thick, on which are 5 groups of markings. In the center of the tablet is a set of 5 parallel lines equally divided by a vertical line, capped with a semicircle at the intersection of the bottom-most horizontal line and the single vertical line. Below these lines is a wide space with a horizontal crack dividing it. Below this crack is another group of eleven parallel lines, again divided into two sections by a line perpendicular to them, but with the semicircle at the top of the intersection; the third, sixth and ninth of these lines are marked with a cross where they intersect with the vertical line.
See main article: Roman abacus.
The normal method of calculation in ancient Rome, as in Greece, was by moving counters on a smooth table. Originally pebbles, calculi, were used. Later, and in medieval Europe, jetons were manufactured. Marked lines indicated units, fives, tens etc. as in the Roman numeral system. This system of 'counter casting' continued into the late Roman empire and in medieval Europe, and persisted in limited use into the nineteenth century. Due to Pope Sylvester II's reintroduction of the abacus with very useful modifications, it became widely used in Europe once again during the 11th century
Writing in the 1st century BC, Horace refers to the wax abacus, a board covered with a thin layer of black wax on which columns and figures were inscribed using a stylus.
One example of archaeological evidence of the Roman abacus, shown here in reconstruction, dates to the 1st century AD. It has eight long grooves containing up to five beads in each and eight shorter grooves having either one or no beads in each. The groove marked I indicates units, X tens, and so on up to millions. The beads in the shorter grooves denote fives –five units, five tens etc., essentially in a bi-quinary coded decimal system, obviously related to the Roman numerals. The short grooves on the right may have been used for marking Roman ounces.
See main article: Suanpan. The earliest known written documentation of the Chinese abacus dates to the 2nd century BC.
The Chinese abacus, known as the suànpán (算盤, lit. "Counting tray"), is typically 20cm (10inches) tall and comes in various widths depending on the operator. It usually has more than seven rods. There are two beads on each rod in the upper deck and five beads each in the bottom for both decimal and hexadecimal computation. The beads are usually rounded and made of a hardwood. The beads are counted by moving them up or down towards the beam. If you move them toward the beam, you count their value. If you move away, you don't count their value. The suanpan can be reset to the starting position instantly by a quick jerk along the horizontal axis to spin all the beads away from the horizontal beam at the center.
Suanpans can be used for functions other than counting. Unlike the simple counting board used in elementary schools, very efficient suanpan techniques have been developed to do multiplication, division, addition, subtraction, square root and cube root operations at high speed. There are currently schools teaching students how to use it.
In the famous long scroll Along the River During the Qingming Festival painted by Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145 AD) during the Song Dynasty (960–1297 AD), a suanpan is clearly seen lying beside an account book and doctor's prescriptions on the counter of an apothecary's (Feibao).
The similarity of the Roman abacus to the Chinese one suggests that one could have inspired the other, as there is some evidence of a trade relationship between the Roman Empire and China. However, no direct connection can be demonstrated, and the similarity of the abaci may be coincidental, both ultimately arising from counting with five fingers per hand. Where the Roman model (like most modern Japanese) has 4 plus 1 bead per decimal place, the standard suanpan has 5 plus 2, allowing use with a hexadecimal numeral system. Instead of running on wires as in the Chinese and Japanese models, the beads of Roman model run in grooves, presumably making arithmetic calculations much slower.
Another possible source of the suanpan is Chinese counting rods, which operated with a decimal system but lacked the concept of zero as a place holder. The zero was probably introduced to the Chinese in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) when travel in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East would have provided direct contact with India, allowing them to acquire the concept of zero and the decimal point from Indian merchants and mathematicians.
First century sources, such as the Abhidharmakosa describe the knowledge and use of abacus in India. Around the 5th century, Indian clerks were already finding new ways of recording the contents of the Abacus. Hindu texts used the term shunya (zero) to indicate the empty column on the abacus.
See main article: Soroban. In Japanese, the abacus is called soroban (Japanese: 算盤, そろばん, lit. "Counting tray"), imported from China around 1600. The 1/4 abacus, which is suited to decimal calculation, appeared circa 1930, and became widespread as the Japanese abandoned hexadecimal weight calculation which was still common in China. 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.
Some sources mention the use of an abacus called a nepohualtzintzin in ancient Mayan culture. This Mesoamerican abacus used a 5-digit base-20 system. The word Nepohualtzintzin comes from the Nahuatl and it is formed by the roots; Ne - personal -; pohual or pohualli - the account -; and tzintzin - small similar elements. And its complete meaning was taken as: counting with small similar elements by somebody. Its use was taught in the "Kalmekak" to the "temalpouhkeh", who were students dedicated to take the accounts of skies, from childhood. Unfortunately the Nepohualtzintzin and its teaching were among the victims of the conquering destruction, when a diabolic origin was attributed to them after observing the tremendous properties of representation, precision and speed of calculations.
This arithmetic tool was based on the vigesimal system (base 20). For the Aztec the count by 20s was completely natural. The amount of 4, 5, 13, 20 and other cyclees meant cycles. The Nepohualtzintzin was divided in two main parts separated by a bar or intermediate cord. In the left part there were four beads, which in the first row have unitary values (1, 2, 3, and 4), and in the right side there are three beads with values of 5, 10, and 15 respectively. In order to know the value of the respective beads of the upper rows, it is enough to multiply by 20 (by each row), the value of the corresponding account in the first row.
Altogether, there were 13 rows with 7 beads in each one, which made up 91 beads in each Nepohualtzintzin. This was a basic number to understand, 7 times 13, a close relation conceived between natural phenomena, the underworld and the cycles of the heavens. One Nepohualtzintzin (91) represented the number of days that a season of the year lasts, two Nepohualtzitzin (182) is the number of days of the corn's cycle, from its sowing to its harvest, three Nepohualtzintzin (273) is the number of days of a baby's gestation, and four Nepohualtzintzin (364) completed a cycle and approximate a year (1 1/4 days short). It is worth mentioning that the Nepohualtzintzin amounted to the rank from 10 to the 18 in floating point, which calculated stellar as well as infinitesimal amounts with absolute precision, meant that no round off was allowed, when translated into modern computer arithmetic.
The rediscovery of the Nepohualtzintzin was due to the Mexican engineer David Esparza Hidalgo, who in his wanderings throughout Mexico found diverse engravings and paintings of this instrument and reconstructed several of them made in gold, jade, encrustations of shell, etc. . There have also been found very old Nepohualtzintzin attributed to the Olmeca culture, and even some bracelets of Mayan origin, as well as a diversity of forms and materials in other cultures.
George I. Sanchez, "Arithmetic in Maya", Austin-Texas, 1961 found another base 5, base 4 abacus in the Yucatán that also computed calendar data. This was a finger abacus, on one hand 0 1,2, 3, and 4 were used; and on the other hand used 0, 1, 2 and 3 were used. Note the use of zero at the beginning an end of the two cycles. Sanchez worked with Sylvanus Morley a noted Mayanist.
The quipu of the Incas was a system of knotted cords used to record numerical data, like advanced tally sticks – but not used to perform calculations. Calculations were carried out using a yupana (Quechua for "counting tool"; see figure) which was still in use after the conquest of Peru. The working principle of a yupana is unknown, but in 2001 an explanation of the mathematical basis of these instruments was proposed by Italian mathematician Nicolino De Pasquale. By comparing the form of several yupanas, researchers found that calculations were based using the Fibonacci sequence 1, 1, 2, 3, 5 and powers of 10, 20 and 40 as place values for the different fields in the instrument. Using the Fibonacci sequence would keep the number of grains within any one field at minimum.
The Russian abacus, the schoty (счёты), usually has a single slanted deck, with ten beads on each wire (except one wire which has four beads, for quarter-ruble fractions. This wire is usually near the user). (Older models have another 4-bead wire for quarter-kopeks, which were minted until 1916.) The Russian abacus is often used vertically, with wires from left to right in the manner of a book. The wires are usually bowed to bulge upward in the center, to keep the beads pinned to either of the two sides. It is cleared when all the beads are moved to the right. During manipulation, beads are moved to the left. For easy viewing, the middle 2 beads on each wire (the 5th and 6th bead) usually are of a different colour from the other eight beads. Likewise, the left bead of the thousands wire (and the million wire, if present) may have a different color.
As a simple, cheap and reliable device, the Russian abacus was in use in all shops and markets throughout the former Soviet Union, and the usage of it was taught in most schools until the 1990s.  Even the 1874 invention of mechanical calculator, Odhner arithmometer, had not replaced them in Russia and likewise the mass production of Felix arithmometers since 1924 did not significantly reduce their use in the Soviet Union. Russian abacus began to lose popularity only after the mass production of microcalculators had started in the Soviet Union in 1974. Today it is regarded as an archaism and replaced by the handheld calculator.
The Russian abacus was brought to France around 1820 by the mathematician Jean-Victor Poncelet, who served in Napoleon's army and had been a prisoner of war in Russia. The abacus had fallen out of use in western Europe in the 16th century with the rise of decimal notation and algorismic methods. To Poncelet's French contemporaries, it was something new. Poncelet used it, not for any applied purpose, but as a teaching and demonstration aid.
In Western countries, a bead frame similar to the Russian abacus but with straight wires and a vertical frame has been common (see image). It is still often seen as a plastic or wooden toy.
The type of abacus shown here is often used to represent numbers without the use of place value. Each bead and each wire has the same value and used in this way it can represent numbers up to 100.
An adapted abacus, invented by Tim Cranmer, called a Cranmer abacus is still commonly used by individuals who are blind. A piece of soft fabric or rubber is placed behind the beads so that they do not move inadvertently. This keeps the beads in place while the users feel or manipulate them. They use an abacus to perform the mathematical functions multiplication, division, addition, subtraction, square root and cubic root.
Although blind students have benefited from talking calculators, the abacus is still very often taught to these students in early grades, both in public schools and state schools for the blind. The abacus teaches mathematical skills that can never be replaced with talking calculators and is an important learning tool for blind students. Blind students also complete mathematical assignments using a braille-writer and Nemeth code (a type of braille code for mathematics) but large multiplication and long division problems can be long and difficult. The abacus gives blind and visually impaired students a tool to compute mathematical problems that equals the speed and mathematical knowledge required by their sighted peers using pencil and paper. Many blind people find this number machine a very useful tool throughout life.
The binary abacus is used to explain how computers manipulate numbers. The abacus shows how numbers, letters, and signs can be stored in a binary system on a computer, or via ASCII. The device consists of a series of beads on parallel wires arranged in three separate rows. The beads represent a switch on the computer in either an 'on' or 'off' position.