To trace the origins of the abacus, one must go back well before the age of calculators and computers. To a time when people used their extremities as a placeholder for calculations—and when they ran out of fingers and toes—used natural objects like shells, sticks and stones.
One of the earliest counting methods on record required drawing lines in the sand and placing pebbles in the grooves to keep a tally. The concept was that the space between each line represented a unit, such as 10s, 100s, 1000s, etc.; four pebbles in the 100s column would equal 400. Merchants would use this method to keep track of livestock and finances. But as their inventory grew, this simple way of counting couldn’t be sustained.
Shopkeepers who were constantly on the move needed something mobile, something they could carry with them. And so, out of necessity, the abacus of the modern age slowly emerged. There have been many variations of counting devices throughout Ancient Times and the Middle Ages, including the Chinese, Japanese and Russian abaci. However, the most common was the Chinese abacus or the suan-pan in Chinese.
Records of the suan-pan date back to the 2nd century BC. This version, which included two beads on the upper deck and five beads on the lower deck, was referred to as the 2/5 abacus. Using an abacus can be learned relatively fast, although it does still require the user to do the calculations in their head. People who are well versed using one can often compute numbers faster than someone using a digital calculator: evidence of the machine’s potential.
Today, the use of the abacus goes beyond its roots in commerce. Elementary schools use the abacus as a way of teaching children arithmetic and the numeral system. Similarly, the abacus is sometimes used by individuals who are blind to perform calculations, providing them a similar experience as their sighted classmates who would solve problems on paper.
From natural to mechanical to digital, calculators have continued to evolve and now come disguised in software, apps, smartphones and tablets. Each can perform a multitude of tasks simultaneously within milliseconds. As impressive as these tools are, new processes such as robotic automation are already being developed to make financial transactions more efficient.
As the proverb says, “necessity is the mother of invention”. What do you think accounting’s next technology breakthrough will be?