# What is Abacus Math: Everything You Need to Know

7 min read · Aug 12, 2024

## Table of contents

Hi there!

Welcome to the eleventh chapter in my mental math series.

Today, we're moving away from Vedic math and jumping into the next mental math technique; **abacus math**.

But what is abacus math, you say? This chapter will answer all your questions.

### Definition of Abacus Math

Abacus math is a method of performing mathematical calculations using a simple tool called an abacus.

**Sidenote:** I built a free abacus simulator which you can play around with.

It's been around for over 4,000 years. But don't let its age fool you.

At its core, abacus math isall about using this counting frame to do arithmetic - addition, subtraction, multiplication, the works. You move beads around on rods to represent numbers and do calculations.

It's hands-on (literally) and visual, which makes it stick in your brain.

The most common type is the Chinese suanpan. It's got seven beads per rod - five at the bottom for ones and two at the top for fives. Each column represents a different place value, just like our regular number system. The rightmost column is for ones, then tens, hundreds, and so on.

### Basic Structure of an Abacus

Now, let's break down how this thing is built.

You've got a rectangular frame, usually wood or plastic, with vertical rods. The Chinese suanpan has two sections:

- Lower deck: Five beads on each rod, each worth one.
- Upper deck: Two beads on each rod, each worth five.

This setup lets you represent numbers fast and calculate even faster. Want to show the number 7? Move two beads up on the bottom and one down on the top. Bam! 5 + 1 + 1 = 7.

Most modern abacuses have 13 rods, but that can change. They're usually made of hardwood to last, and the beads slide smooth as butter for easy use.

## Historical Background of the Abacus

### Origins and Evolution

The abacus has been around for a long, long time - we're talking ancient civilizations here. Nobody knows exactly where it started, but evidence suggests it popped up in different parts of the world around 2400–2300 BC.

The first version was probably just a flat board with lines on it. Ancient Sumerians and Egyptians would use pebbles or shells to count on these boards. Pretty basic stuff, but it got the job done.

As people started trading more and bumping into each other, different types of abacuses spread around. The Greeks had their own version by about 500 BC. We know this because some archaeologists found an old abacus tablet in 1846 - they call it the Salamis Tablet.

Now, in China, they came up with the suanpan (that's the one we've been talking about, and people still use it today).

We're not sure exactly when it was invented, but there's some old Chinese writing from the 6th century that mentions an abacus where you rolled counters in grooves. The modern Chinese suanpan probably showed up around the 12th century and was all over the place by the 14th century.

### Cultural Significance

Here's where it gets interesting. The abacus wasn't just a tool - it became a big deal in different cultures, especially for business and learning.

In China, if you saw someone with a suanpan, you knew they meant business. Shopkeepers and merchants used them all the time. Same thing in Japan - their version, called the soroban, became a must-have for traders in the 17th century.

But it wasn't just about making money. In a lot of Asian countries, learning to use the abacus was a big part of math class. Still is in some places.

And get this - even with all our fancy calculators and computers, the abacus is still hanging in there. In 2013, UNESCO officially listed Chinese zhusuan (abacus mathematics) as an **intangible cultural heritage element**. That's impact!

## How to Use an Abacus

Alright, let's roll up our sleeves and get into the nitty-gritty of using this abacus.

### Basic Operations (Addition, Subtraction)

First things first - addition and subtraction. These are your bread and butter. Let's break it down:

**Adding 64 + 13:**

- Set up 64: In the tens column, slide one upper bead (50) and one lower bead (10) down. In the ones column, push four lower beads up.
- Now for 13: In the tens column, move one more lower bead down (10). In the ones column, push three more lower beads up.
- What do you see? 77! In the tens column, one upper bead and two lower beads are down (70). In the ones column, seven lower beads are up (7).

**Subtracting 135–72:**

- Start with 135: In the hundreds column, push one lower bead up. In the tens column, push three lower beads up. In the ones column, slide one upper bead down.
- Now take away 72: In the tens column, slide all three lower beads down and borrow from the hundreds (move the hundreds bead down and add 10 to the tens). Now subtract 7 from the tens by sliding two upper beads and three lower beads down. In the ones column, push two lower beads up.
- You're left with 63: In the tens column, one upper bead and one lower bead are up (60). In the ones column, three lower beads are up (3).

### Advanced Calculations (Multiplication, Division)

Now we're getting into the heavy lifting - multiplication and division. It takes more skill, but the payoff is worth it.

**Multiplying 23 × 5:**

- Break 23 down into 20 + 3. Always look for ways to simplify.
- First, do 20 × 5 = 100. Set this on the abacus by moving one bead in the hundreds column.
- Then tackle 3 × 5 = 15. Add this to what you've got by moving one bead in the tens column and five beads in the ones column.
- What do you end up with? 115: one bead in the hundreds column, one in the tens column, and five in the ones column.

**Dividing 144 ÷ 12:**

- Set up 144 on the abacus: one bead in the hundreds column, four beads in the tens column, and four beads in the ones column.
- Now, here's the trick - keep subtracting 12 from 144, and count how many times you do it.
- Each time you subtract 12, move one bead up in a separate column to keep score.
- Keep going until you can't subtract 12 anymore.
- The beads in your counting column? That's your answer.
- In this case, you'd subtract 12 exactly 12 times, with nothing left over. So, 144 ÷ 12 = 12.

## Benefits of Learning Abacus Math

### Cognitive and Educational Benefits

Now let's talk about why Abacus math is worth your time. It's not just about moving beads around - it's about sharpening your mind:

**Enhanced Cognitive Development:**Abacus training works both sides of your brain. It's like a full-body workout for your mind. You'll get better at analyzing, visualizing, and imagining - skills that'll help you solve all kinds of problems, not just math ones.**Improved Mathematical Understanding:**Abacus makes math click. It turns those abstract numbers into something you can see and touch. Once you get this, the tougher math stuff down the road will be a breeze.**Increased Mental Calculation Speed and Accuracy:**Here's where it gets exciting. Kids who know abacus math can often outpace a calculator (!!) on big multiplication or division problems. Imagine impressing your friends with that!**Memory Enhancement:**Using an abacus regularly is like bench pressing for your memory. Both short-term and long-term, you'll see improvements.**Improved Concentration and Focus:**Abacus work demands concentration. Parents and teachers often say kids who learn abacus get better at concentrating on everything.**Boosted Self-Confidence:**As you get better at this, you'll start feeling more confident. Not just in math, but in everything.

## Modern Applications and Relevance

Let's talk about how this ancient tool is still kicking butt in today's world. You might think the abacus is old news, but trust me, it's still making waves.

### Educational Use in Schools

Schools across Asia are still using the abacus. In Japan, kids start learning the soroban around 7 or 8. It's not optional - it's part of the deal.

China's still big on it too. Like I said last week, UNESCO recognized Chinese abacus math as something special back in 2013. India's catching on too, with more and more schools jumping on the abacus bandwagon.

Even the West is starting to wake up. Some schools in the U.S. are bringing in abacus programs.

### Abacus in Competitive Exams

There's this thing called the International Abacus Olympiad. Kids from 5 to 14 from all over the world show up to duke it out with mental math. It's like the Olympics, but for your brain.

These competitions are no joke. They're timed, and these kids are solving complex problems in their heads. You know what the best ones are visualizing? An abacus!

But most importantly, this doesn't just help with abacus competitions. It gives these kids an edge in all sorts of ways (including improved focus, enhanced calculation speed, better observation skills, boosted memory, improved analytical skills, etc…)

### Use in Special Education

The abacus has found significant applications in special education, particularly for students with visual impairments and other learning disabilities.

There's this thing called the Cranmer abacus. It's designed for blind kids. The beads have felt on them so they stay put, and these kids can do math just by touch. How cool is that?

Beyond its use for the visually impaired, the abacus has shown benefits for students with various learning disabilities, including dyslexia and dyscalculia. It gets them using multiple senses at once, which helps the learning stick.

For students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the abacus keeps them focused. It's hands-on, it's visual - it keeps their attention when other things might not. Even kids with autism are benefiting. The step-by-step nature of abacus math fits right in with how their brains work.

## Conclusion

So there you have it. This ancient tool is still relevant as heck. It's in schools, it's in competitions, and it's in special education settings.

It's proof that sometimes, the old ways are the best ways.

See you in the next chapter 🙂 Be well.

### About the author

#### Richard Reis

Founder of Mental Math Pro! Also currently doing a fun little "25 AI Startups in 50 Weeks" challenge.