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Abacusmiddle ages, region of origin Middle East



What is an abacus?
An abacus is a device used for addition and subtraction, and the related operations of multiplication and division. It does not require the use of pen and paper, and it's good for any base number system. There are two basic forms for the abacus: a specially marked flat surface used with counters (counting table), or a frame with beads strung on wires (bead frame). (5)

The name Abacus derives from the Greek word ABAX meaning table or board covered with dust. The origins of the Abacus are buried deep in the history of mankind. But it is generaly assumed that the origins of the Abacus lies in the Middle East some where in the period known as the Early Middle Ages. The model developed during that period had a wooden frame with several wires each strung with 10 beads. Three more than the Abaci we know now from Asia.

It is known that in its 'modern' form - 7 beads per string - the abacus appeared in China between the 12th and 13th century AD.

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The abacus was most probably imported by merchants traveling to China, it migrated to Korea (appr 1400) and later Japan (appr 1600). The abacus in Europe was in use until the 18th century and is still in use in the Orient. The Abacus is still taught in the Far East as regular school training, and is used commonly in many places in many countries. Also in some enclaves(4) in the western world were people are living from the orient; Russia, China, Vietnam, Korea etc.
In 1947 a contest between a Japanese Abacist (Kiyoshu Matzuzake) and a US Army private (Tom Wood) with an electrically driven mechanical calculator was held for 2 days resulting in an unmistakable victory for the Abacist, four out of five. (3)



The Chinese Abacus is made of 13 columns with 2 beads on top (heaven) and 5 beads bellow (earth).

The Japanese copied the Chinese Abacus around the 14th century AD and adapted it to a more delicate way of thinking. It has 21 columns with 1 bead on top (heaven) and 4 beads below (earth).

The third modern form of the Abacus is Russian with 10 beads in 10 arched rows.


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Country of origin and first appearance unknown. Region of development: Middle East


Modern Abacus in use in China


Abacus in use in Korea


Abacus known as Soroban in use in Japan


Last use of abacus in Europe, driven away by the introduction of the Hindu-Arabic notation of numbers.




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