Zoom March 2013
Published: Friday, February 22, 2013
Words: Michael Isenbek Photo: Stephen Lang
Who knew moving heaven and earth would be required to do math? No superhuman feat, it happens just counting by 1’s and 5’s on the abacus, mankind’s first mechanism for mathematical calculation developed somewhere in the world in unknown antiquity. Almost all major historical civilizations used them, as the ability to crunch numbers was vital for government and commerce. Today, the abacus is still used by the visually impaired. A prevalent modern abacus is the Soroban, developed in Japan. The vertical columns of beads are divided by a horizontal “reckoning bar” into two sections: the upper or “heaven” section with a single bead worth five and a set of four beads in the lower or “earth” section worth one each. There are at least nine columns of beads and the greater the number of beads, the larger the calculation the abacus can handle. You read an abacus from left to right with one digit for each column. Addition and subtraction are straightforward, totals are increased when the beads are moved toward the bar and decreased when moved away. Multiplication and division are more complicated, because the abacus becomes more of a worksheet where some numbers must remain in the user’s head.