The history of abacus dates back to nearly 2500 years back. The Abacus (or Soroban as it is called in Japan) is an ancient mathematical instrument used for calculation. The Abacus is one of the worlds first real calculating tools.
The word Abacus is derived from the Greek "Abax" meaning counting board and the original types of Abacus were stone slates with dust covering them and a stylus used for marking numbers. Later this evolved into a slate with groves where rocks or other counters would be placed to mark numbers. Later it finally evolved into a framed device with beads sliding along bamboo rods.
The modern Chinese abacus has been in use since about the 14th century. The Japanese Soroban has been in use since at least the 16th century.There are some key differences between the two types of instruments. The Chinese abacus instrument has two beads above the reckoning bar and five beads below it, were as Japanese soroban . have one bead above the reckoning bar and four below it.
Originally the Japanese soroban looked much like the Chinese Abacus (5 beads below, 2 beads above) but it was simplified around 1850 and reduced to a single bead above the reckoning bar and later in 1930 to just 4 beads below it. It doesn't matter which type you use – both have the same procedure for recording numbers and performing addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
The Chinese abacus is capable of counting 16 different numbers from 0 to 15 on each individual rod which was useful since their units of weight were (are?) measured in 16ths. For westerners – this is not very useful unless you want to do calculations in 16ths of an inch or maybe hexadecimal The Japanese Soroban has been streamlined for the Hindu-Arabic number system and each rod can represent one of 10 different numbers (0-9) and has no wasted beads for our decimal calculations.
The original utilization of an Abacus related calculation system is presumed to have been in the form of a board covered with dust or fine sand. The sand was divided into lines, each one representing a different numerical position. Numbers and quantities were calculated by means of various signs drawn along the lines. The early civilization of Mesopotamia may have seen the development of such a rudimentary calculator.
With time, the dust abacus developed into a ruled board on which pebbles or counters were placed on lines somewhat like checkers on a backgammon board. Its wide use in Egypt, Rome, Greece, India, and other ancient civilization is well attested. Herodotus (484 – 425 BC) most likely refers to a line abacus in his records : “The Egyptians move their hands from right to left in calculation, while the Greeks from left to right”. A famous example of the line abacus is the Salamis Abacus preserved at the Athens Museum. It consists of a white marble board (149 by 75 Cm) with lines drawn on it.
Romans made use of a more advanced design. In Roman abacus several grooves were carved into the board along which counters were moved up and down. One counter was laid in each of the upper grooves, while four in each of the lower grooves. Some additional counters were laid on the right to facilitate the calculation of fractions.
In china, the Chinese abacus came into common use during the Ming Dynasty. A book written by Wu Ching – Hsin – Min in 1450 gives description of the Abacus. The Chinese abacus used to have two counters above the bar and five below. This type of Abacus is still being used in china this day’s.
A little past by the middle of the 15th century, the Chinese Abacus and its operational techniques were introduced to Japan. Mathematician’s constant and diligent study developed a distinct Japanese method of Abacus operation different from original Chinese method. The large-sized Chinese Abacus was improved into a handier smaller-sized one.
In 1938, the technique of the Japanese abacus operation was included in the national grade schools textbooks on arithmetic compiled by education ministry. Today, the Japanese abacus technique is a required study in the third and upper grades.
The Japanese abacus with one five unit counter and four one unit counters on each rod is the standard nowadays. It should be noted that older division method, which made use of the cumbersome division table, was formerly replaced by the Japanese method, which make use of the multiplication table. The inclusion of the Abacus technique in the curriculum of Japanese compulsory education and the enforcement of the Abacus efficiency test system since its inception in 1928 have been two major factors which have led to the present popularity of Abacus in Japan.