What is Abacus

Table of Contents


The abacus, a tool used for counting that has been around for centuries, represents one of the earliest forms of computing devices. Its simple yet effective design, with beads on rods, allowed for basic calculations. Although the abacus is not a digital computer, it played a significant role in laying the foundation for the development of more complex and advanced technologies that came afterwards.

What is an Abacus?

An abacus, also known as a counting frame, is a mechanical device used for quick arithmetic calculations. Its name comes from the Latin word “abax” or “bacon.” The invention of the abacus dates back thousands of years originally created to perform arithmetic calculations. Today, it is widely utilized in brain development programs. The abacus consists of a rectangular frame with vertically arranged rods on which beads can move up and down. Its primary purpose is to enhance children’s cognitive abilities.

What does an Abacus do?

An abacus itself does not perform calculations; instead, it assists users in keeping track of what has been counted. Here are some key points about the abacus;
  1. It is an ancient calculating device that has been used for centuries.
2.Children can swiftly solve calculations in their minds by visualizing the movements of the abacus beads.
3.Research has shown that individuals who learn to use the abacus can effectively utilize both hemispheres (left and right) of their brain.
4.Apart from aiding in arithmetic calculations, the abacus also proves beneficial across various subjects.

Why used an abacus?

Back in ancient times, before the existence of computers, calculators or even pen and paper for doing calculations, the abacus was considered a dependable tool for performing arithmetic operations. In addition to the abacus, people would sometimes rely on their fingers and toes or even use stones on the ground to aid in calculations. However, these alternative methods were not practical for more complex or lengthy calculations. That’s why during that period, people resorted to using an abacus as a more efficient solution.

Who invented the first abacus?

It is believed that ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia, Greece, Egypt, China, Persia and Rome utilized the abacus as early as 2700 B.C.

Is the abacus still in use?

Interestingly enough, the abacus still finds application in certain parts of the world today. It continues to be used for counting purposes and as a supportive tool alongside modern counting devices.

Benefits of an Abacus

The advantages of using an abacus are manifold. Notably;
  1. It proves helpful in various fields such as architecture, engineering and science.
  2. It instills confidence in subjects that rely on calculations by simplifying mathematical computations.
  3. Its benefits extend beyond improving mathematical abilities; it also enhances overall academic skills.
  4. The abacus aids users in tackling daily challenges effortlessly while sharpening their problem solving capabilities.
Numerous renowned researchers have explored how different hemispheres of the brain function. The left hemisphere, often referred to as the digital brain, governs analytical knowledge and controls tasks like calculation, reading, writing and logical thinking. On the other hand, the right hemisphere—known as the analog brain—oversees creativity, artistic senses and spatial awareness.
Many people believe that regularly using an abacus can have a positive impact on the right side of the brain, which in turn contributes to the overall development of the human brain.
Using an abacus helps children improve their creativity, concentration, innovation, accuracy, imagination, speed, listening skills and more.
It is also beneficial for dyslexic children who struggle with spelling, reading and writing.

History of Abacus

The abacus has a rich history, with its name derived from the Latin word ‘abakon’ or ‘abax.’ It is a highly effective tool for performing arithmetic calculations and was first introduced between 300 and 500 BC. Over time, it spread to various countries. Among the innovative Chinese abacuses was the suanpan, which had 2/5 decks but proved to be more challenging to use. Consequently, it was later replaced by the Japanese Soroban abacus, which underwent improvements by renowned mathematician Seki Kowa.
Seki Kowa made modifications to the Soroban abacus by removing one bead from both upper and lower decks, reducing it to 1/4 decks. This version of the abacus is still in use today and gained popularity with globalization when competition intensified on a global scale. Additionally, it had an impact on education systems in different countries. The abacus not only enhances mathematical understanding but also improves problem solving skills and speeds up calculations.

Types of Abacus

Below, you will find a description of various types of abacus along with their historical backgrounds;
  1. Dust Abacus; This type of abacus was created using a board covered with fine sand or dust. The sand was divided into lines, each representing a different numerical position. Calculations involving numbers and quantities were performed by making marks on the lines. It is believed that the ancient Mesopotamian civilization may have used this early form of calculator.
  1. Line Abacus; Over time, the line abacus evolved into a ruled board with pebbles placed along the lines. It was widely utilized in ancient civilizations such as Greece, Egypt, Rome and India. One well known example is the Salamis abacus preserved at the Athens Museum, which features a white marble board with drawn lines.
  1. Grooved Abacus; In addition to the line abacus, Romans developed an advanced layout using grooves. Each upper groove contained one counter while each lower groove held four counters. Additional counters were also included on the right side to facilitate calculations involving fractions.
  1. Ancient Chinese Abacus; Similar to the grooved abacus in terms of construction and calculation methods.
The image below depicts the ancient Chinese abacus, which was believed to have been described in a book called “Mathematical Treatises.” This book was written by Hsu Yo approximately 1700 years ago and later annotated by Chen Luan after 300 years.
  1. Soroban (Japanese Abacus):The Soroban, also known as the Japanese Abacus, made its way to Japan in the early 15th century. While it originally drew inspiration from the Chinese abacus, the Japanese developed their own unique method of using the soroban. This method was refined through extensive study and hard work by renowned mathematicians. Unlike its larger Chinese counterpart, the soroban was designed to be smaller and more convenient.
Towards the end of the 19th century, an updated version of the soroban was introduced. Each rod on this new model included one five unit counter and four one unit counters. It coexisted with older types of abacuses that were in use at that time. The functionality of operating with a soroban was documented in arithmetic textbooks authorized by Japan’s Education Ministry in 1938.

How can be subtracted numbers by using an abacus?

Now, let’s explore how subtraction is done using an abacus. The process for subtracting numbers on an abacus is quite similar to adding numbers on it. Start by setting your first number on the abacus and subtract from there while moving left to right.
For instance, if you want to subtract 200. 100, you would first add 200 to the abacus by moving two Earthly beads in the hundreds column. Then, subtract 100 from that same column to get your final answer of 100.


To conclude, the abacus is a testament to the resourcefulness of early civilizations in their pursuit of efficient calculation methods. Its impact on the evolution of computing cannot be underestimated, as it encompasses the fundamental principles that form the basis of today’s digital devices. While modern computers have far surpassed the capabilities of the abacus, its legacy remains an essential part of computing history and development—a reminder of humanity’s enduring drive for efficient and accurate computation.
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