Last updated: August 13, 2021

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This time we want to talk to you about the abacus, that simple object with so much history, which has been used throughout the centuries as a tool to perform mathematical calculations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and even to extract the square root or the cube root.

Beyond the technological advances, it is curious that even today there are Asian countries, such as China and Japan, that still prefer the abacus as an accounting method. They argue, among other things, that calculators do not stimulate intelligence and problem solving as abacuses do.

In this article we will show you the different types of abacuses on the market and their characteristics, so that you can choose the perfect product for you from among the different options. It is important that you pay attention to all the details, as they will be of great help to you in making the best purchase choice.




The most important things

  • Abacuses are accounting tools made of wood or plastic of different sizes, which have a series of inserted rods through which balls (or beads) rotate and which are used to perform mathematical calculations.
  • The best known abacuses are Chinese, Japanese and Russian, but there are also Greek, Mayan, Persian, Iranian, Korean, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and binary abacuses, among others. The differences often lie in the number of rods and balls (or beads).
  • There are also abacuses adapted for the blind. The mechanism of use is the same, but they have rubber bands or pads under the beads to prevent them from slipping, and they have a raised crossbar or "ruler" so that the units, tens, hundreds, etc. can be deciphered by touch.

The Best Abacus: Our Picks

Buying guide: what you need to know about the abacus

In this guide we will tell you about the main features and advantages of abacus, so that you can get to know all their benefits. We will also mention other factors that you should take into account before making your purchase, in order to choose the most suitable product for you, according to your tastes and needs.

The abacus allows you to make simple and complex mathematical calculations. (Photo: Moodboard /123rf.com)

What is an abacus?

The abacus is a calculating instrument, used in many schools and homes since ancient times. This element or accounting tool is used to perform simple operations such as addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, and other more complex ones, such as obtaining the square and cube root of a number.
The abacus is made up of a series of rods, wires or strings, which vary according to the type and model, in which balls or beads are inserted, generally coloured, which slide easily along the rods. The first row represents the units, the second row the tens, the third row the hundreds, and so on.

What are the advantages of an abacus?

One of its main advantages is that it encourages attention and creativity. It also increases cognitive development, promotes coordination and logical reasoning, and is a simple and fun learning method.

There are also abacuses designed for blind people, made with non-slip rubber bands behind the beads and a relief to detect the units, tens, hundreds, etc. by touch.

Advantages
  • Improves memory and concentration
  • Increases cognitive development
  • Fun and playful method of learning
  • Encourages creativity
  • Increases the ability to solve problems
  • Improves fine motor skills
  • Encourages logical reasoning
Disadvantages
  • Not suitable for complex calculations
  • Does not match the technology of calculators, tablets or computers
  • Not as simple to move as a calculator

Chinese, Japanese or Russian abacus - what should you pay attention to?

In the following, we will tell you about the most important features of the different types of abacuses, so that you can get to know their functions and qualities. Keep in mind that these particularities may vary according to each style and model, as there are modern abacuses that have modified certain traditional aspects.

Chinese abacus. Also known as Suan-Pan. It has a different number of columns according to each version and is divided into two parts (one upper and one lower); in the upper part each column has two beads and in the lower part five.

This abacus was first revealed in a book of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C - 22 A.D.) and since that time it has not ceased to be used; therefore it is one of the oldest abacuses, which has been in continuous use for thousands of years since its appearance.

Japanese abacus. Also known as Soroban. Although its origin dates back to the 16th century, it is still used in schools in Japan and is applied to all ages: from young children as young as 6 years old who are just starting to learn counting, to older children to perfect their numerical calculations.

It is also used by adults, whether they are engaged in business (such as accountants, businessmen and traders), or for solving household or everyday calculations. It is considered one of the most evolved abacuses, due to its ease of use and speed.

Russian abacus. Also known as Schoty, this abacus is widely used by children who are just starting their numerical learning stage, because it has a simple and easy to understand mechanism.

This abacus was used in Russian schools until the 1990s. Today it is considered a primitive calculation tool, as it has long since been replaced by modern calculators and technological devices.

Chinese Japanese Russian Russian
Rods More than 7 rods 17 rods approx. 10 rods approx.
Beads 2 beads on each upper rod and 5 on each lower rod 5 beads per rod 10 beads per rod (except 1 which has 4)
Vertical or horizontal use Vertical Both Horizontal, usually

On the other hand, there are also other types of abacuses such as the Mayan, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian, Iranian, Greek, Korean, Mayan and binary abacuses. Since there are so many types, we have chosen the three most common traditional abacuses so that you know what their main characteristics are and can choose based on them.

What is the current use of the abacus in the East?

The origins of the abacus are so ancient that it is difficult to pinpoint its exact roots. What is known is that it began to be used as a method of calculation in China between the 8th and 9th centuries, and its use began to spread and become popular in the Middle East first, and later in other continents.

Abacuses were originally made of beans or stones. Later, wooden, stone or metal planks were added, and later wire was used to slide coloured balls, or beads, through which the calculations could be made. Throughout the many years of their life, and according to each culture, abacuses offered different models and designs.

It is curious that it is still the preferred system of calculation of the Chinese and Japanese, even at the professional and work level, and is used by accountants, mathematicians, teachers and merchants. They argue that the abacus is better than the calculator because it stimulates intelligence and problem-solving skills.

In fact, it has been proven that children in Asian countries are much more efficient in mathematical tests due to the use of abacuses from an early age. This tool allows both brain hemispheres to work, which generates coordination, speed and imagination.

The best known types of abacuses are Chinese, Japanese and Russian. (Photo: Anerma / pixabay.com)

How much does an abacus cost?

Abacuses come in different sizes, formats and designs which determine their costs. There is a wide range of prices due to these particularities, in addition to the brands, which are also often a determining factor in the price.

For your reference, the simplest and most functional abacuses start at 100 MXN and go up to 2000 MXN, although there are many intermediate options of excellent quality. It all depends on the product you are looking for.

The materials also influence the price, as there are abacuses made of strong and resistant wood and there are plastic abacuses more prone to break or split. That's why you should evaluate, according to your budget, how much you are willing to spend and, based on that, look for the best products in that price range.

Buying criteria

With what you have read you are probably about to run to choose the perfect abacus for you. But before you buy it, there are certain factors you should take into account in order to choose the right product, according to your tastes and needs. We tell you about these, so you can make a comprehensive and informed decision.

  • Ages
  • Materials
  • Abacuses for the blind
  • Complexity

Ages

Abacuses are instruments with different levels of complexity, so there are different models focused on different ages. It is important that you consider this, since if you buy an abacus that is not suited to your abilities, it will surely be a poor investment.

3 and 4 years old. Although at this age they have not yet begun to learn to add and subtract, there are specific abacuses for very young children that have fun and original designs to attract their attention, and have no more than 5 rods that move easily and do not involve effort.

These abacuses are designed to simplify your children's learning when they go to school. It will surely be much easier for them to learn the basic calculations, as they will have a previous training at home, which will also be integrated as a game and not as a school obligation.

6 years old. Given that this is the age at which they begin to add and subtract, simple and easy to use models are recommended; they should have few pieces and, above all, should be brightly coloured and very eye-catching so that they capture their attention. Ideally, the balls or beads should be small so that they can be easily manoeuvred.

8 years and upwards. At this age they are already more adept at handling basic beads, so you can buy an abacus with more digits. These abacuses, which are also suitable for adults, are usually of a single colour and small size, as they are designed to be taken to the place of study or work.

Obviously, no matter how small they are, they will never be the size of a calculator, nor will they be as practical to carry from one place to another; however, there are so many benefits of this tool that it is worth carrying a little more weight.

The abacus is considered the forerunner of the modern digital calculator. (Photo: Skitterphoto / pixabay.com)

Materials

Most abacuses are made of wood, although there are some more modern ones made of plastic. It is worth thinking before you buy which material is most suitable for you. Below we will tell you some characteristics of wooden and plastic abacuses so that you can decide which one is better for you.

Plastic. Plastic abacuses are colourful and eye-catching, but they often do not comply with current safety standards and may be manufactured with toxic products, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), phthalate or Bisphenol A. For this reason, it is important to read beforehand what components they contain.

Wood. Wooden toys are generally natural and free of toxins, although it is important to check that the paint is epoxy. They are also healthier for the environment, as they are usually made of organic wood.

On the other hand, wood is more stimulating to the touch for children, although it is important to check that it has a good finish and is not splintered, so it is important to invest in an abacus made of good quality wood, for example cedar, which will also be more resistant and durable.

Abacuses for the blind

In the comparison chart we talked about the different types of abacuses and their particularities. Some Japanese abacuses, also called soroban, are adapted to teach mathematics to blind people.

This adaptation consists of a rectangular wooden or plastic frame, divided into an upper area and a lower area of a crossbar, called a "ruler". This ruler has raised marks or dots that indicate, from right to left, the separation in units, tens, hundreds, etc.

They usually have a pad or a rubber compressor underneath the balls or beads, which allows them to stay firmly in place and not to slide on their own, so that the blind person can feel them when handling them.

This adapted abacus, created by Tim Crammer, has been of great help to visually impaired people because, although there is a Braille system suitable for mathematics, it is often quite complex to perform multiplication and division calculations.

That is why, through the adapted abacus, also known as the Crammer abacus, blind people obtain the same basic mathematical and accounting knowledge as sighted people, and they also acquire a remarkable speed in doing the accounts.

Complexity

The abacus has a medium level of complexity, i.e. it does not work for very advanced mathematical calculations, but it can solve basic accounts and even more complex problem situations such as square and cube roots.

As mentioned above, abacuses have rows of rods into which balls, usually called beads, are inserted. The first row of rods represents the units, the second row the tens, the third row the hundreds, and so on.

The more rods the abacus has, the more complex the calculations will be, so there are abacuses with few rows, designed for young children, and abacuses with more rows, designed for older children and adults. The substantial difference between the models is the number of rods and, therefore, the complexity of the beads.

(Featured image photo: Pexels / pixabay.com)

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