What is abacus?

What does abacus mean?

The abacus is a very old calculating instrument , used since ancient civilizations, long before the calculator, and is the oldest known calculating instrument.

The term abacus comes from the Greek word ábax , which literally means ” counting board “, although some sources claim that it comes from the Hebrew word abad , translated as dust .

Both etymologies have one thing in common, as it was once believed that basic mathematical operations were carried out on a table with accumulated dust and through which graphic symbols or marks were counted.

It should be noted that the use of numbers known today, that is, Arabic numerals , appeared in the 10th century, and the symbols + and – appeared in the 15th century.



The origin and history of the abacus , this mathematical calculation instrument was made of wood. Some moving parts were placed on boards with different rods; These pieces were moved to perform arithmetic operations .

With this device you can count numbers and perform addition , subtraction, multiplication and division. It can be said that this tool was the first calculator used by humans .

Although its use is less in the educational system, it is still used in countries such as China, Japan and Korea. From the point of view of mathematical didactics, it is a useful tool to understand the importance of the position of the digits and the meaning of basic operations.

In recent years, the abacus has become fashionable as an educational toy for children.


In many circumstances of everyday life we ​​need to calculate . If the operation is simple, we can do it mentally.
When a child is learning the first notions of calculation, he is likely to use his fingers to count.

If an operation is of a certain complexity, there are several resolution alternatives: the use of paper and pencil to do the typical accounts, knowing how to use the calculator, as well as the abacus.

In the Inca culture, they used a system of ropes and knots known as kipu . With this procedure, the Incas made all kinds of calculations related to daily life.

In teaching the blind , the abacus has been a fundamental tool for learning arithmetic, since by touching it it is possible to move the balls of the sticks following certain rules and thus carry out any operation.

Types of Abacus

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  • Mesopotamian
    It is believed that the first Mesopotamian abacus may have been made of smooth stone, covered with sand or dust. Draw the letters in the sand (decimal order) and use stones to calculate.
    The Babylonians used the same Mesopotamian method . They are known to use the abacus, in addition to addition and subtraction operations, for more complex calculations.
  • Egyptian
    Archaeologists have found different shapes of disks, which they deduced were used to solve mathematical calculations, but no painting was found on the walls to support this claim.
  • Greek
    An abacus was found on the predominant Greek island, made of Salamis marble, 149 cm long, 75 cm wide and 4.5 cm thick, with 5 groups of markings.
  • Romano
    It was a wooden board with 8 large cracks (a straight line) containing 5 balls in each and 8 small cracks, with or without a ball, where the stones moved according to the calculations made.
  • Indian
    The Indians used the term shunya to indicate an empty column on the abacus. (Report found in Hindu texts).
  • Chino
    It was called by the name of Suanpan, in mentions recorded in ancient books. Today a Suanpan is about 20 cm tall and comes in different widths depending on the manufacturer. It usually has more than seven stems. There are two balls on each stem at the top and five at the bottom for decimal and hexadecimal numbers.
  • Japanese Han dynasty It
    was a tablet called Soroban, which means: a counting table, a modified version of the Chinese suanpan.
  • Native Americans
    It was a string based system that used to record numerical data, originating from the ancient Aztec culture, the data was made using a yupana. The calculations were based on the Fibonacci sequence.
  • Russian
    The Russian abacus had only one long side, with 10 balls on each string (except one that has 4 balls, for fractions of quarters of a ruble). Usually this is on the user side. It was used in Russian schools until 1990, when it was replaced by the calculator.



Chinese students have been shown to be able to do complex calculations with an abacus faster than a Westerner equipped with a modern electronic calculator.

Although the calculator displays the answer almost instantly, students can finish the calculation even before their competitor finishes typing the digits on the calculator keyboard.

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