Am I Made in China?

An abacus is a calculating tool that has been used to ease the addition and subtraction of bigger numbers, for example, for businessmen to keep track of stock counts.

Quick question: Where do you think the use of abacus was originated from?

Bet you thought it was originated in China – common misconception! But no, the abacus wasn’t a Chinese invention. The use of the Sumerian abacus (named by the Sumerians themselves) started in Sumer of Mesopotamia c.2700-2300 BCE. The abacus was then spread to other regions such as Persia, China, Egypt, Greece and Rome. This was how the abacus evolutionized, from the 1st Sumerian Abacus to the abacus we know today.

Abacuses from different regions and time frames are what we call ‘same same but different’ in Singlish. They are the same in terms of materials - how economical they were and how standardized the materials used were. Yet, they are different as the type of material used to make the abacus differs between civilizations.  

Some examples of used materials are wood, cement, and stone, which are affordable and easily accessed to.


ABACUSES IN DIFFERENT TIME AND SPACE

Mesopotamian c.2700-2300 BCE

Who would've guessed that the first abacus came from the ancient city of Mesopotamia! The abacus from this time-frame was called the Sumerian Abacus. It consisted of small clay tokens that represented the different numbers which were always used in their Sumerian abacuses. They were mostly used because cuneiform scripts were their writing system back in the days, where they imprinted what they want to say on clay. This was probably what Sumerian traders use for their inventory taking. It is the same as how we use paper to write on in today’s world.

Cuneiform Tablet from an Assyrian Trading Post By Los Angeles County Museum of Art, LACMA [CC0 Public Domain]

Cuneiform Tablet from an Assyrian Trading Post By Los Angeles County Museum of Art, LACMA [CC0 Public Domain]

Iranian-Persian c.500 BCE

Achaemenid empire, also known as Persian’s first empire, was ruled by Cyrus the Great. During his time, he established a trading route known as the Persian Royal Road in c.500 BCE to improve and increase trades between merchants.

Persians, especially scholars and mathematicians, were already using the abacus for simple calculation and even advanced mathematical theories such as exponents and the infinity. With the exchange of knowledge among the fellow mathematicians of the neighboring countries such as Greece, India, China and Roman empire, the concept of the abacus was being disseminated.

The War Council of Darius from the Darius Vase is the perfect artifact to show that Persians adopt this concept of abacus. One part of the Darius Vase is being magnified to show that there is a counting board which matches the description of an ancient abacus.

The war council of Darius from the Darius vase  [CC0 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

The war council of Darius from the Darius vase  [CC0 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Egyptian c.430BC

We're pretty sure everybody knows who Herodotus is, right? He mentioned in one of his works that Ancient Egyptians moved pebbles and stones in a systematic direction of right to left, which is in the opposite direction of what Ancient Greeks do; moving pebbles on a Salamis tablet in a direction of left to right. With that, Herodotus concluded that Ancient Egyptians had adopted the use of abacus, but in their own modified way. In addition, archaeologists also discovered various pebbles of varying sizes that might be used as markers which might have a connection to what Herodotus had described in his work. Alike other civilizations, Egyptians used abacus for mathematical purposes such as accounting and tallying stocks in the inventories of merchants.

Greek c.300 BCE

The Greek abacus, aka Salamis tablet, is the oldest abacus that was created in c.300BC. It was discovered on a Greek island of Salamis in 1864 BC and is currently on display at National Museum of Epigraphy in Athens. Pebbles were placed on different parts of the Salamis tablet to represent different numbers for calculations. It is believed that the Salamis tablet was also used by the Achaemenid Empire - the first Persian Empire. With the close connection between Persia and Greece, we can safely conclude that the use of abacus gave rise to more mathematical theories being proven.

Salamis Tablet: oldest abacus from 300 BC found 1846 at the island of Salamis, Greece By Wilhelm Kubitschek [CC0 Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Salamis Tablet: oldest abacus from 300 BC found 1846 at the island of Salamis, Greece By Wilhelm Kubitschek [CC0 Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Chinese c. 130 BCE

With the opening of the Silk Road that enabled trades with the West by the Han Emperor in c.130BCE, goods were not the only trad-able entity. Knowledge between various countries such as India, China, Persia and the Roman Empire were exchanged too. You've probably already made a clever guess that the concept of the Chinese abacus, which is also known as the Suan Pan 算盘 is influenced by the trading from the Silk Road.

Silk Road Trade Route in Modern World, own work using http://www.googlemaps.com

Silk Road Trade Route in Modern World, own work using http://www.googlemaps.com

Chinese Abacus By Shieldforyoureyes Dave Fischer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Chinese Abacus By Shieldforyoureyes Dave Fischer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Suan Pan is made from Hardwood (an easily accessible material) and beads lodged together with a rod. A longer version of Suan Pan is created as the needs of Chinese merchants, scholars and shopkeepers changes over the years. However, Chinese merchants, scholars and shopkeepers used the abacus for one purpose, and that is basic arithmetic calculation!

Long Abacus By Maksim [CC BY-SA 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons]  

Long Abacus By Maksim [CC BY-SA 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

 

 

Roman c.100 BCE

Initially, Romans did their daily calculations by moving specific counters on a leveled surface, similar to Greek, Persians and Egyptians before them. This then inspired the Romans to create the Roman Hand-Abacus, which was made to be portable for convenience and better efficiency for their daily use. As you can see from the picture, the Roman hand Abacus is just the size of our human palm.

Roman hand Abacus By Razumhak (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Roman hand Abacus By Razumhak (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Even though it was made out of a metal plate, the Roman abacus was designed to be small and is able to fit a shirt pocket. It is mind-blowing how the Romans were so innovative to be able to create something so handy back in that time period!

This Roman hand Abacus was then used widely by Roman engineers, money changers and merchants as their jobs demanded them to interact with numbers and calculations daily.


SIGNIFICANCE OF ABACUS IN HISTORY

We found the abacus to be of great significance in history for a number of reasons.

The abacus was a tool for calculation which helped people manipulate numbers regardless of its values. This increased efficiency for merchants and traders when needed to do stock-count and when needed to do accounting.

With the abacus, basic arithmetic operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division were created. Abacus were also used for advanced mathematical theories such as the exponents and infinity too.This sped up mathematical calculations for both small and big numerical sums, making calculations easier, faster yet accurate(just 10 fingers and 10 toes will not do, and borrowing our friends’ and family’s won’t increase efficiency either!).


SIGNIFICANCE OF ABACUS IN MODERN DAY

The abacus is actually still in use up till now. There has been an up rise of learning centers that offer abacus courses, as it is a technique that can be used to improve arithmetic skills, memory and concentration levels.

The usage of the abacus can still be seen in some TV dramas that are staged in ancient China, where medicinal practitioners and businessmen are depicted to be calculating either the amount of medicine or doing cashiering duties.The abacus also holds a memory for the both of us (Wei Ling and Amanda) because it was involved in our childhood. Fun fact: we were from the same primary school and learnt how to use the abacus because it was compulsory in the school’s syllabus back then.

P.s. we still use the mental abacus method to do some calculations sometimes.

Isn’t it fascinating how the abacus is still around and still used now? We certainly are amazed. Let us know whether you have learnt how to use the abacus in primary school like us and whether you enjoyed it or not in the comments section below!