"The State of The World" Number 32
Complete Index Of All Issues
The Abacus - The First Computer
Many of man's modern wonders of technology are actually just present-day versions of things that were invented long ago. The abacus is certainly in that category. Although invented thousands of years ago, it is regarded to be the first calculator and computer.
The Chinese abacus shown below, which is capable of computing figures up to 10 trillion with its 13 rows of numerical display, is displaying the number 37,925. The beads in the top section are each 5, while the beads in the bottom section are each 1 - the beads are moved to the center bar to form numbers and to make calculations.
Historians disagree about where and when the abacus was invented. The English-language word "abacus" originated about 1350 from a Latin word that was itself taken from a Greek word, pronounced abax, that meant a rectangular rack.
But the device itself was known and documented many centuries before that. Perhaps the reason that historians dispute its origin is because many people naturally made their own simple counters that then became calculating devices.
This is evident from the many ancient versions of the device that are found all around the world in nations that had no contact with each other prior to their making their own, although that too can be debated - the native people of the Americas had their own version of the abacus, just as did their ancient Chinese ancestors (see The First Chinese American War).
The abacus was known to the ancient peoples of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, Persia (Iran), India, China, Korea, Japan, Greece, Rome and Russia - along with many others.
The illustration below shows a European "desktop computer" - a table abacus - in 1503.
The abacus is not merely an ancient relic. They are still used in many countries around the world, even when electronic calculators are readily available. Many people can actually do calculations with an abacus faster than they can enter numbers into a calculator or computer.
Some visually-impaired people, who are unable to see the digital displays of electronic calculators, make use of the abacus to do mathematics.