Different types of Abacus and their uses

Last Updated on October 2, 2023 by Editorial Team

The abacus is one of the most remarkable innovations in the education industry that humankind has ever achieved. It follows an interactive approach to train your mind with maths fundamentals to a whole new level. Abacus is used all over the world as one of the important measures to develop mental math abilities.

For all of you who still don’t know what we are talking about, the Abacus is a manual aid to calculating that consists of beads or disks that can be moved up and down on a series of sticks or strings within a usually wooden frame. It is considered one of the best ways to develop number sense. Numbers are physically constructed and manipulated in Abacus. Practicing 10-15 minutes daily can effectively build your math calculative skills.

Types of Abacus

The abacus is not a new invention, it dates back to 2700–2300 BC in the Mesopotamian period as a form of Sumerian abacus. It had gone through a series of modifications in different periods of time, in different parts of the world leading to what we call the ‘School Abacus’ that we use today. To understand the abacus, it’s really important to learn about its beginning and how it reached its current state. So, this post is all about the different types of abacus and their uses.

1. Roman Abacus

Roman abacus model

Instead of rows and strings, Ancient Romans used to move stones as counters up and down on a smooth table for calculation. The Roman Abacus was developed for the work of money changers bankers, businessmen, and engineers. The abacus is made ​​of a metal plate where the big ran-in grooves. Other than this, the Romans also invented three different types of abacus.

  1. The Dust Abacus
  2. The Line Abacus and
  3. The Grooved Abacus

2. The Suanpan or Chinese Abacus

The Chinese abacus, known as the suanpan usually contains more than seven rods with two beads on each rod in the upper deck and five beads each on the bottom. Each of the two upper deck beads has a value of 5, while the lower deck beads each have a value of 1. The wires represent the powers of ten.

The suanpan or chinese abacus model

It is made out of hardwood. The suanpan abacus was first mentioned in a 190 CE book of the Eastern Han Dynasty, namely Supplementary Notes on the Art of Figures written by Xu Yue.  The similarity of the Roman abacus with the Suanpan sheds light on the inspiration behind its development.

3. Japanese Soroban Abacus

Derived from Chinese Suanpan, Soroban was developed in Japan in the 14th century. Beads in Soroban are made of wood with metal rattan or bamboo rods to slide up and down. Japanese abacus is still used today, however, its legacy is overshadowed by widely used modern electronic calculators.

japanese soroban abacus

Each column or rod of the Japanese abacus can represent a number from 0 to 9. When the abacus is set to 0, all bottom deck beads are aligned at the bottom and the top deck beads are aligned at the top. In the respective value of every single rod, each bottom deck bead is worth 1, and the top deck one is worth 5.

4. Lee’s Abacus

Lee’s Abacus is majorly described as an improved version of the suanpan and soroban abacus. It was invented in 1950 by the Lee Kai Chen in Taiwan. It basically incorporates features of both Chinese as well as Japanese abacus. One merit feature of Lee’s improved abacus was that it was really easy to operate and learn for beginners.

The notation system that each rod represents a definite digit and each bead counter, a specific number, leaves no doubt whatsoever even in the mind of the very beginner. Thus, it’s easy to carry out various arithmetic operations through this abacus faster and more efficiently than the old-styled abacus.

5. Russian Abacus

The main difference between the Russian Abacus and Chinese abacus is the position of the rods. The rods are placed horizontally in the Russian Abacus. The beads are slid from right to left. A typical school abacus measures 28 cm wide and 46 cm in height.

russian abacus schoty model

It is necessary to put the abacus at such an angle on the desk that the direction of the right-hand movement coincides with the wires of the abacus. This is similar to the direction of a book where you are writing. Also, the rods are slightly curved to prevent back sliding of the counted beads.

6. Arithmetic Rekenrek

Rekenrek or arithmetic rack is not just another type of abacus but its functionality is quite similar to an abacus in learning arithmetic. So, it’s a version of abacus and we have to put it in the list. It is a learning tool designed by Adrian Treffers, a mathematics curriculum researcher at the Freudenthal Institute in Holland, that provides a visual perspective of number relations and various mathematical operations, It consists of two rows of 10 beads.

Larger versions with ten rows of ten beads are also available. Each row is made of five red beads and five white beads. The setup allows students to prepare a mental image of numbers and use it (5 or 10) as an anchor for counting, adding, and subtracting.

7. Binary Abacus

Binary Abacus model

Recent developments have shown that the abacus is no longer limited to performing arithmetic operations. It can also be used to explain how computers manipulate numbers. Binary Abacus performs one such function by teaching the conversion of decimals into binary. A series of beads in parallel wires are arranged on three separate rows, with each bead representing a counter as “on” and “off” or “1” or “0”.

8. Cranmer Abacus

Cranmer Abacus is actually a modification of the existing abacus to support learners with vision disabilities. This abacus was developed by Tim Cranmer. The abacus allows the learners to manipulate the beads which would lead to a more in-depth understanding of numbers than using calculators. This can be used in calculating numbers that involve arithmetic processes like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and to calculate square roots and cube roots as well. 

The idea behind this is to use a piece of soft fabric or rubber behind the beads to prevent any accidental movements. The capabilities are further enhanced if used with Braillewriter for practicing calculations. A typical Cranmer abacus measures 6 1/8 by 3 ¼ by 7/16 inches.  Most of these have 13 rods but some do have 15. In each rod, it contains one bead that is located above the crossbar and the other four beads are located below.

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