For this series, we've been thinking a lot about some of the iconic objects that some of us remember using — if only for a short period of time — in our early schooling. Slide rules, the recorder, protractors and Bunsen burners.
But when the abacus came up, we were a bit stumped.
"Does anyone still use this thing?" we wondered. "And how the heck does it work?"
These days, you're most likely to find the simple abacus in the hands of preschoolers — with rows of rainbow-colored beads that kids can push around and shake and rattle.
But the abacus is much more than a fun toy for 3-year-olds. It's a fairly sophisticated calculating device that dates back to antiquity.
Ancient Romans used them to collect taxes. In the Middle Ages, European merchants used them to keep track of their finances. The Russians invented their own version, as did the Chinese and the Japanese.
And though very few Americans nowadays know how to work one, in the 19th century the abacus was actually a mainstay of classrooms around the country.
An Ancient Tool
"The abacus was really big in the U.S. for about 100 years," says Peggy Kidwell, a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., as she leads me through the museum's back rooms.
In the 1820s, inspired by teachers in Europe who were doing the same, a man called Josiah Holbrook championed for the use of simple abacuses in American schools.
The device was especially useful for teaching young factory workers who couldn't read or write how to do simple calculations, Kidwell says. Holbrook also felt that abacuses were a good way to supplement formal education in Boston primary schools.
And he was right. The abacus can be used for basic counting, and young students can move the beads around to make shapes. But you can also use them to carry out a range of calculations, from simple addition and subtraction to multiplication and even square roots.
They all work a bit differently, but in most cases, each row represents an order of 10 — the bottom row may represent units, the second row represents tens and then hundreds and so on. The Chinese and Japanese abacuses are divided into two sections; beads on one side are worth one each, and beads on the other side are worth five each.
"It's almost impossible to generalize how they work," Kidwell says. "You think you know, and then you come across things like this" — she points to a giant abacus made in Mexico — "and this one has 13 beads across!"
(In fact, we're not even going to try to explain in a few paragraphs how they work. For more on that, you can find videos here and here.)
It's the fact that they're so adaptable that makes them such a good tool for teaching.
Manisha Singh's 3-, 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds at Shining Stars Montessori in Washington, D.C., use a version with four rows of 10 beads each.
"The littlest ones, they just enjoy the colors of the beads," she says. Then they use it for simple counting exercises, before moving on to addition and subtraction.
"It gives children a visual understanding of how to perform these operations," Singh says.
When Singh taught in India for a stint, her students there studied with more complex Chinese and Japanese abacuses. There, and all over Asia, abacus classes are a popular after-school activity, and teachers often use them to help kids who are struggling in math.
"It takes about three years to master," says David Barner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego who studies how children learn with the abacus. But once kids learn the basics, he says, "it can make a really significant difference in their ability to do computation."
Advanced abacus users are able to do quick computations using even imaginary or mental abacuses. "You'll see them teasing their hands in the air as if they're holding a real abacus," Barner says. Chinese, Japanese and Indian kids who compete in mental abacus competitions can add up to 15 numbers in less than two seconds. "It's really incredible to watch," Barner says.
A lot of kids find it much easier to compute using an abacus because it engages their visual and tactile capacities, Barner says.
"Of course it's not for everybody," says Emi Takiguchi, who teaches the abacus at an after-school program in San Diego.
Takiguchi grew up in Japan in the '70s, and she says back then the abacus was fairly commonplace. Most young students learned how to use it in school, and bank tellers used it in lieu of a calculator or computer.
Now she's carrying on the tradition, teaching about 65 students, between the ages of 4 and 12, at a Chinese community church. It's not an easy skill to teach, or learn, Takiguchi says. But once it clicks with students, she finds that most of them really have fun with it.
"I had a student with ADD, and she had a very hard time at the beginning," Takiguchi says. But she kept coming into class — for over five years. "Eventually she was able to really focus on the calculations," Takiguchi says. "It really helped her confidence."