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Abhijit Naik
Jun 18, 2019

Though a bit distorted and controversial, the history of the abacus is quite interesting in itself.

Even though most of us know that the abacus is a counting device, which can be used to perform simple mathematical calculations, like addition and subtraction, not many of us can boast about knowing who invented it.

In fact, the history of this device is one of the most contentious issues, such that even the historians are left divided over it. There is no consensus whatsoever on who invented the abacus, or when it was invented for that matter.

While numbers do make the task of counting a lot easier, the practice of using the number system came into existence only a few centuries ago. So how were the people able to count without using numbers in the ancient times?

Human fingers were perhaps the oldest tools used for counting, and they were quite useful, until the problem of counting large figures surfaced.

In order to make this task convenient, ancient scientists tried to invent tools that could aid mathematical calculations. The abacus was one such tool which was used to count large numbers―a task which was considered quite daunting back then.

Before the abacus came into the picture, people used various methods of counting, ranging from simple ones like drawing lines in the sand, to complex wooden or metallic tablets, such as the Salamis tablet used by Babylonians in 300 BC.

The abacus, in its present form (sometimes referred to as the modern abacus) appeared in China in the 13th century. It was known as *suan-pan* or 2/5 abacus, and had two segments, with the upper segment sporting two beads on each rod and the lower segment sporting 5 on each.

The design was eventually modified and several new variants of abacus were introduced, including the Japanese abacus, Korean abacus, etc.

The latest version of this classic device, the Lee Kai-chen Abacus was introduced by Lee Kai-chen in 1958. If Lee is to be believed, this abacus made calculations involving division and multiplication even more simple owing to its unique design.

Additionally, there seems to be a great deal of confusion about the meaning and use of the device. Even though the abacus and counting board (which is also called the abacus by some sources), both were used as aids for counting in the ancient times, they are not the same.

In case of counting boards, beads or stones were moved between carved or painted lines to perform calculations. In abacus, on the other hand, beads or stones were slid along the metallic or wooden rods in order to perform these calculations.

Similarly, some people tend to associate abacus with the history of computer, in order to suggest that it was the first computer. That, however, makes little sense when you take into consideration the fact that the abacus only acts as a counting aid; it's the human mind that performs all the calculations involved.

As for the computer, or calculator for that matter, you just need to feed the data and calculations will be carried out by the device on its own.

The history of abacus has always been an issue of debate among historians. While most of the historians are of the opinion that it was an ancient Chinese invention, others trace it to Europe, from where―they say―it was eventually introduced to the east.