Evolution of Abacus

From the time immemorial, the primitive people had encountered the problem of counting. The earliest instruments for counting were stones, slender tree branches, tying knots and carving. All these methods of counting once used widely by many nations are no longer the primitive counting form.

The Old Abacus

The earliest Chinese counting beads, which had been discovered, are the pottery beads made in the Western Zhou Dynasty more than 3000 years ago. According to the historical materials at hand, the book that records the earliest calculation with an abacus is called the Arithmetic Chronicle, written by Xu Yue in the Eastern Han Dynasty, more than 2000 years ago. It said that an abacus has one upper bead and four lower beads distinguished by different colors. The upper bead represents a value of five, while each lower bead represents a value of one. It can be taken as an embryonic form of modern abacus that is widely used by abacus teachers in many countries.

Abacuses in modern shape existed in Song Dynasty, which could be proved by some material evidence. For instance Julu (big deer) counting beads, picture of counting beads in the painting of Scenes of the Social Lives at the Banks of Bian River on Pure Brightness Days, especially Wang Zhenpeng's painting of the Picture of the Universe in a Load (A.D. 1310), in which there was a street vendor with an abacus inserted on his load. This is the evidence that abacuses were widely used among the people in the Southern Song Dynasty. From Yuan Dynasty on-ward, abacuses had been gradually popularized in the whole country. By middle period of the Ming Dynasty (in about the late 15th century), calculation with an abacus had replaced the calculation with counters completely and formed a set of complete algorithmic system. There were two representative works on abacus calculation in Ming Dynasty. One was Wang Wensu's Mathematic Principles (A.D. 1524); the other was Cheng Dowel's General Rules of Counting Method (A.D. 1592), which placed a greater role in spreading the use of abacuses. During the period of Ming Dynasty, Chinese abacuses have spread into Korea, Japan as well as southeastern Asian areas and began to prevail throughout the world. During Ming Dynasty, there was a kind of rhomboid-beaded abacuses in China, with one upper bead and five lower beads. It was found in the tomb of Lu Weizhen (A.D. 1543 ~ A.D. 1610). After Qing Dynasty, the round beaded-abacus with two upper beads and five lower beads had been widely used. Some people suggested improving the abacus, but their achievements had not been carried used in practice. Although the Western calculation methods such as written calculation with counters, calculation by rules have been spread into China in the period of the Qing Dynasty, abacus was still the principal calculating instrument.

After the Bead-calculation Association of China was organized, the Calculating Instrument Reformation Committee was also established, which carried out the study on the calculation tools. At present, a mid-sized abacus with a restorer and one upper bead and four lower beads has gradually popularized in the country and has been warmly welcomed by the public.

The New Abacus

The reform of abacuses will be continued. How to combine the use of abacuses with that of a modern computer will be the direction of reform.