I don’t remember exactly how old I was when someone gifted me this thing that should somehow help me learn how to count. It must have been sometime during my preschool years and I’m almost certain that it was a Christmas or birthday present. Although I have to admit that I’m not sure of its whereabouts nowadays, I do recall that it was one of my favorite toys. Yet, far from being a premature math aficionada, I rather enjoyed playing with the colorful wooden beads once I found out how to remove the wires from their frame. This was particularly exciting, as the beads would usually bounce wildly in every direction after I impatiently pulled out the wires, which of course drove everyone nuts as they had to spend a considerable amount of time on their knees collecting all the beads again and putting them back in place.
What I didn’t know, or any other kid who thinks this gift is just another fabulous means to test their parents’ boundaries, is that the abacus is a calculating tool that was in use for many centuries before the written numerical system was known. It’s history dates back as early as 2700 BC and it got it’s name from the Greek word “abax”, which described “a drawing board for the use of mathematics”.
This amazing invention was popular in cultures all around the globe: from Mesopotamia to Greece, the Roman Empire to China, as well as in many Native American cultures. This simple calculating tool continues to be used in parts of Asia and the Middle East, serving individuals in their small business as well as in private use. The simple counting board, which can enumerate various mathematical functions when handled by a skilled abacist, is also widely used in schools for the blind.
Originally consisting of beans or little stones moved in grooves of sand or on tablets of wood, stone, or metal, they are nowadays made of a wooden frame with colored wooden or metal beads that slide back and forth on wires. While addition and subtraction are easy functions to start with, the tool can also serve for division, multiplication and even to determine square and cube roots. Especially when traveling to China, you might find the abacus in many shops where it is used in place of a calculator or computer. Exploring the various possibilities of using the abacus requires a fair amount of skill. As you can see, this amazing calculating board can be a fun toy for adults too!