The Humble Abacus

The second CIS blog post focuses on early computing and early computing devices whether that be an early modern computer to a simple counting device. One of the major devices that helped start the formation of the basic ideas of “computing” has been used around the world and throughout time up to this present day. The device I am talking about is the abacus a simple device used to help calculate numbers. The modern-day abacus consist of square wooden frame with spokes within the frame holding beads or other small objects that can be moved around. The early abacus was just more or less a table with grooves allowing rocks, beads, beans, etc… to move around the grooves. Abacuses were first documented in history  during the age of the Mesopotamian era dating around  2700-3000 BC. The abacuses used during the time were for just simple math computations such as addition or subtraction but not for much more complex operators. The first actually physical abacus found from human history dates back to the ancient Greeks as early as fifth century BC. Their abaci were constructed of mainly marble and wood and some have been found to be over fifty-nine inches long! Two more notable civilizations that used abaci in their culture were the chinese. The chinese abacus dates well back into the second century BC. Their abaci were known as suànpán or “counting trays” The abacus looked very similar to the modern abacus of today since it was constructed of hardwood and used beads to move along the spokes. Unlike the ancient greek abacus the chinese abacus is capable of doing harder computations. These include multiplication, division, square roots, and many more.

So why is this important to modern-day computers? Well a special abacus called the binary abacus is used to explain how computers manipulate numbers. The binary number system was first envisioned by the Indian scholar  Pingala in the fifth to second centuries BC. The idea was pushed forward later by Francis Bacon in 1605. He theorized that letters could be coded into simple binary bits. When George Boole  published his idea of Boolean algebra in 1854 he along with  Claude Shannon set the foundations for both binary numbers but electronic circuits as well.  The basics of binary code involve the countless ones and zeros many have seen on reality tv shows when it comes to the characters of that show messing around with computer software (in most cases breaking the computer).  In reality though the ones and zeroes can represent any number of our basic integer system. Binary numbers can be used through any of our basic math operators.  These operators can be made through a series of tables which again have the user/computer manipulate a grouping of ones and zeros (that represent numbers) to get the desired result. This is why the abacus a device that was made originally to do simple calculations  has led to be one of the greatest foundations for modern computing science  of our day and age.


Pictures of Abaci:

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