Late autumn, specifically in early December, is the anniversary time of what most people consider the birth of the modern computer. The first attributable device was invented by Konrad Zuse in 1936. His device begat the zeros and ones format called a binary system. His super-calculator enabled him to perform complex mathematical computations that had previously been, well, ruled by a slide ruler. Many of the intermediate computations found en route to the final answer were used more than once, and Zuse grew tired of tracking them. His device did that for him. But since mathematical equations were at the root of inspiration, was his actually the first mathematically-based device invented?
Reintroducing the Abacus
A simple device constructed from beads, reeds and often a wooden frame, the world as a whole was introduced to the abacus by the Chinese. Used and still used today to perform arithmetic calculations, abacus experts can compute figures by moving beads up or down the rods almost faster than a modern calculator. However, the Chinese didn’t invent the abacus: They just adopted it wholeheartedly around 2 BC and revised its format. Their earliest versions evolved into its current form of 13 vertical rods, bi-sectioned into differently sized areas. The upper area holds only two beads per rod. The lower portion holds five beads each. The Chinese call their abacus the Suanpan.
Early models of the abacus included a Roman version with eight vertical grooves which held varying numbers of balls in each groove. The model stylized with wax, as noted in Roman records, dates back to approximately 1 AD. But even that wasn’t the earliest record of an abacus, for that was three years after the Chinese abacus was designed.
The exact origin date is unknown, but the earliest recorded use of an abacus to date was in Mesopotamia. Sumarians used an abacus-like device for the four centuries from 2700 to 2300 BC, which appeared as a tablet of successive columns, each with a value relative to their unique numbering system. Some scholars believe that the Babylonians later used an abacus symbol in their cuniform system.
From Mesopotamia, the abacus found its way into Egyptian, Greek, Persian and Indian culture. Each culture system adapted its principles to their own counting systems, but all used value-based balls or knots and manipulated them for calculations. The Koreans imported the abacus from China in roughly 2 AD, but the device didn’t find its way into Japan until roughly the 1600s, and it again evolved to match local counting systems.
The Mayans are believed to use a similar system, called a nepohualtzintzin, that children were taught to use to track the sky. The approximated recreation of their design has shown extraordinary accurateness in computations.
Until as late as the 1990s, use of the abacus was taught in schools in Russia. The ancient mathematical calculators are still in wide use in Asia, Africa, Japan and elsewhere in the world.
The abacus is taught to blind people for tactile comprehension of mathematics, and the devices are often used for a lifetime. Complex computations on the device, once impossible, are now possible, compliments of construction revisions and improvements. Where the abacus was used originally for simple addition and subtraction primarily, it can now be used for computing square roots and even cubic roots.
A special abacus design, called the Binary abacus, is used to demonstrate the “on and off” positions of a computer in binary coding.
So as you use your keyboard and hear the clicking and clacking as you type, give homage to Konrad Zuse for moving us beyond the slide ruler and extra honors to the millenia of history behind the first calculating device known to Man — the abacus.