The Accounting Historians Journal Vol. 8, No. 2 Fall 1981
Keith F. Sugden
UNIVERSITY OF SALFORD
A HISTORY OF THE ABACUS
Abstract: As the revolution in computing advances, it is appropriate to step back and look at the earliest practical aid to computation—the abacus. Its formal western origins lie with the Greeks and the expansion of trade in the seventh century BC, and its design and application showed remarkably little change over the following two thousand years. A measure of the usefulness of the abacus is seen by the fact that it survived the advent of algorism by some six centuries but its major significance for western culture lies in its perfect and seminal representa-tion of the decimal system.
"Can you do Addition?" The White Queen asked.
"What's one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one?"
"I don't know," said Alice. "I lost count."
"She can't do Addition," the Red Queen interrupted.1
Pure Science—like social science—is addicted to revolution and revolution usually implies the rejection and exclusion of all that came before. Subsequent reassessment, however, usually reveals this to be a short-sighted attitude. Familiarity with relevant historical developments can sharpen appreciation of a contemporary situa-tion and, where appropriate, an assessment in context of past at-tainments can bring a recognition of the limitations of current achievements and provide the spur that prevents complacency. Therefore, as the latest generation of silicon chips carries the revo-lution in computation a stage further, it is appropriate to examine the early history of counting and calculating aids, and look at the use of the abacus.
As Conant has noted,2 we know of no language in which the suggestion of number does not appear, and the words which give expression to the number sense must be among the earliest words to be formed in any language. The need for calculation was as ubiquitous among ancient civilizations as our own; everday inter-course required information as to distance, time, size and cost.