Abacus: Definition, How It's Used, and Modern Applications

What is an Abacus?

An abacus is a calculation tool used by sliding counters along rods or grooves, used to perform mathematical functions. In addition to calculating the basic functions of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, the abacus can calculate roots up to the cubic degree.

Abacus is also an academic accounting journal published and edited by the University of Sydney. 

Key Takeaways

  • An abacus is a manual tool used to keep track of numbers and to perform basic mathematical operations. 
  • Abaci have been in use in various parts of the world for over 4,000 years.
  • Even in the modern digital age abaci remain popular for certain applications in accounting, education, and for use in austere environments.
  • The Australian business journal Abacus takes its name from this venerable tool.

Understanding Abacus

Before the Hindu-Arabic number system was invented in India in the 6th or 7th century and introduced to Europe in the 12th century, people counted with their fingers, and even their toes in tropical cultures. Then, as even larger quantities (greater than ten fingers and toes could represent) were counted, people picked up small, easy-to-carry items such as pebbles, sea shells and twigs to add up sums.

However, merchants who traded goods needed a more comprehensive way to keep count of the many goods they bought and sold. The abacus is one of many counting devices invented in ancient times to help count large numbers, but it is believed that the abacus was first used by the Babylonians as early as 2,400 B.C. The abacus was in use in Europe, China, and Russia, centuries before the adoption of the written Hindu-Arabic numeral system. When the Hindu-Arabic number system was widely accepted, abaci were adapted to use place-value counting, a system in which the position of a digit in a number determines its value. In the standard system, base ten, each place represents ten times the value of the place to its right. Since the first abacus, the physical structure of abaci have changed, but the concept has survived almost five millennia, and is still in use today.

Evolution of Counting Devices

Over time, counting devices continued to evolve due to technological advancements. For example, in 1622, the modern slide-rule was invented and it was widely used until 1972 when the Hewlett Packard HP-35 scientific calculator made the slide-rule obsolete. These days people rely on calculators on their computers and cell phones. Nevertheless, the abacus is still a trusted tool used by shopkeepers in Asia, and Chinatowns in North America, as well as by merchants, traders and clerks in parts of Eastern Europe, Russia, and Africa.

Modern Applications

Another popular use of abaci around the world is to teach arithmetic to children, especially multiplication; the abacus can substitute for rote memorization of multiplication tables.

In addition, people who can't use a calculator due to visual impairment may use an abacus. Blind children are often taught to use the abacus to learn math and perform calculations as a substitute for paper and pencil.

In austere field environments, rudimentary abaci have been commonly used by infantry soldiers among many of the worlds’ armed forces up to the present day. Commonly referred to as “pace counters” they are used to estimate a distance traveled on foot for navigational purposes, by sliding a series of beads along a fixed piece of cordage, usually one bead every 100 paces. 

Academic Journal

Abacus: A Journal of Accounting, Finance, and Business Studies is a peer-reviewed academic journal named after the abacus. Abacus is published by Wiley-Blackwell on behalf of the Accounting Foundation, based at the University of Sydney, Australia. It has been published since 1965 to cover current matters of academic and professional thought in accounting, finance, and business. The journal publishes new, original research; critical reviews; analyses of accounting, finance and business regulatory frameworks; and analytical explorations of business, accounting, and financial practices. 

Article Sources
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  1. New World Encyclopedia. "Abacus." Accessed Dec. 16, 2020.

  2. Hewlett-Packard. "HP-35 Handheld Scientific Calculator, 1972." Accessed Dec. 16, 2020.

  3. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. "The Slide Rule," Page 37. Accessed Dec. 16, 2020.

  4. Wiley Online Library. "Abacus." Accessed Dec. 16, 2020.

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