The abacus is known as the first external aid to computing math-a calculation device. It is interesting that one of the very first uses of beads comes under the topic of mathematics!
The modern Abacus
In China, Japan, Russia, and Africa, the abacus is still widely used by merchants and clerks. In many places in the world the abacus is used to visually articulate and teach mathematics. Modern abaci are made usually with wooden beads. In Japan, bicone beads are used to facilitate ease of movement.
The suanpan, the Chinese name for abacus, can be used for functions other than counting. Unlike the simple counting board used in elementary schools, the suanpan can do multiplication, division, addition, subtraction, square root, and cube root operations at high speed.
The modern abacus is not an old-fashioned instrument. On November 12, 1946, a contest was held in Tokyo between the Japanese soroban, used by Kiyoshi Matsuzaki, and an electric calculator, operated by US Army Private Thomas Nathan Wood. The bases for scoring in the contest were speed and accuracy of results in all four basic arithmetic operations and a problem which combines all four. The soroban won 4 to 1 with the electric calculator prevailing in multiplication.
The most significant educational advantage of using an abacus when practicing counting and simple addition, is that it gives the student an awareness of the groupings of 10 which are the foundation of our number system. Although adults take this base 10 structure for granted, it is actually difficult to learn. Many 6-year-olds can count to 100 by rote with only a slight awareness of the patterns involved.
Soroban, the name for the Abacus in Japan, is taught in primary schools as a part of lessons in mathematics because the decimal numerical system can be demonstrated visually. When teaching the soroban, a song-like instruction is given by the teacher. Despite the advent of handheld calculators, some parents send their children to private tutors to learn soroban because proficiency in soroban calculation can be easily converted to mental arithmetic at a highly advanced level.
But the abacus is not only a visual learning device, it is also quite tactile. In fact, the Cranmer abacus is in common use by individuals who are blind. One can easily imagine that the bicone bead would be the perfect tactile bead to use. This is a very important learning instrument for blind students who learn multiplication, division, addition, subtraction, square root, and cubic root. The thinking process taught to blind students cannot be replaced by the talking calculator, and equals the speed of the sighted student with a pencil and paper.
History and Origins
We know that an abacus was first used 2400 BC by the Babylonians made with sand and pebbles. We know that in the first century in China, and in India an abacus with beads was recorded as being used. India also had the use of the abacus at this time. Sometime in the three thousand years between those two times the abacus was first used with beads. This was perhaps in Mesopotamia or Ancient Egypt. It is estimated to have been in Rome or in Greece at around 300 BC.