Evolution of Abacus
From the time immemorial,
the primitive people had encountered the problem of counting. The earliest
instruments for counting were stones, slender tree branches, tying knots
and carving. All these methods of counting once used widely by many
nations are no longer the primitive counting form.
The Old Abacus
The earliest Chinese counting beads, which had
been discovered, are the pottery beads made in the Western Zhou Dynasty
more than 3000 years ago. According to the historical materials at hand,
the book that records the earliest calculation with an abacus is called the
Arithmetic Chronicle, written by Xu Yue in the Eastern Han Dynasty, more
than 2000 years ago. It said that an abacus has one upper bead and four
lower beads distinguished by different colors. The upper bead represents a
value of five, while each lower bead represents a value of one. It can be
taken as an embryonic form of modern abacus that is widely used by abacus
teachers in many countries.
Abacuses in modern shape existed in Song
Dynasty, which could be proved by some material evidence. For instance Julu
(big deer) counting beads, picture of counting beads in the painting of
Scenes of the Social Lives at the Banks of Bian River on Pure Brightness
Days, especially Wang Zhenpeng's painting of the Picture of the Universe in
a Load (A.D. 1310), in which there was a street vendor with an abacus
inserted on his load. This is the evidence that abacuses were widely used
among the people in the Southern Song Dynasty. From Yuan Dynasty on-ward,
abacuses had been gradually popularized in the whole country. By middle
period of the Ming Dynasty (in about the late 15th century), calculation
with an abacus had replaced the calculation with counters completely and
formed a set of complete algorithmic system. There were two representative
works on abacus calculation in Ming Dynasty. One was Wang Wensu's
Mathematic Principles (A.D. 1524); the other was Cheng Dowel's General
Rules of Counting Method (A.D. 1592), which placed a greater role in
spreading the use of abacuses. During the period of Ming Dynasty, Chinese
abacuses have spread into Korea, Japan as well as southeastern Asian areas
and began to prevail throughout the world. During Ming Dynasty, there was a
kind of rhomboid-beaded abacuses in China, with one upper bead and five
lower beads. It was found in the tomb of Lu Weizhen (A.D. 1543 ~ A.D.
1610). After Qing Dynasty, the round beaded-abacus with two upper beads and
five lower beads had been widely used. Some people suggested improving the
abacus, but their achievements had not been carried used in practice.
Although the Western calculation methods such as written calculation with
counters, calculation by rules have been spread into China in the period of
the Qing Dynasty, abacus was still the principal calculating instrument.
After the Bead-calculation Association of
China was organized, the Calculating Instrument Reformation Committee was
also established, which carried out the study on the calculation tools. At
present, a mid-sized abacus with a restorer and one upper bead and four
lower beads has gradually popularized in the country and has been warmly
welcomed by the public.
The New Abacus
The reform of abacuses will
be continued. How to combine the use of abacuses with that of a modern
computer will be the direction of reform.