Maths History: The Abacus

The abacus is an ancient calculating machine that originated in Babylon approximately 5,000 years ago. Even in ancient times, humans knew how important counting and calculation devices were. Back then, it was necessary to maintain inventories (such as flocks of sheep) or reconcile finances.

‘Abacus’ is derived from the Greek word ‘abax’ which translates to ‘table’ or a ‘flat surface.’ It’s near enough impossible imagining counting without numbers. However, there was a time when written numbers simply did not exist.


People used to count using only their fingers, or pebbles or twigs if they were dealing with large numbers. To increase calculation speed and accuracy and make mathematics more exciting, the abacus was invented. This arithmetic device is also known as the first ‘personal calculator’ and was build out of beads and wood.

While the appearance of it has continually evolved, the fundamental notion of the abacus has remained the same. In essence, it is a calculating machine.

The Abacus is still useful today to teach children addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. It can also be useful to people who are unable to use a calculator because of visual impairment.

Pupil calculating with an abacus at school

Here is the timeline of the Abacus:

3000 BC: An early form of abacus originates in Babylon. This was used for additions and subtractions but it was difficult to use for complex calculations.

1000 BC: The abacus was used by the Chinese as a counting board. Known as the ‘Suanpan’ in China, it was used at a more advanced level at this time; square root and cube root operations could be calculated fast.

500 BC: The abacus was used by Romans and Greeks. It is thought that the Romans made improvements to the primitive abacus by using wire made from ivory or stone to count the beads. The calculations were made by moving these beads back and forth.

300 BC: The abacus was extensively used as a counting device in China. This was a large slab of engraved white marble.

500 AD: Europe started using the abacus. This was then driven away by the introduction of the Hindu-Arabic notation of numbers.

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