04 March 2019

Review: Chinese Suanpan Abacus

A while back I reviewed the Japanese Soroban Abacus and it remains one of my favorite manual calculators. But it's not the only abacus in my collection, and in fact there are many variations of the abacus that have existed throughout history. The first abacus is believed to have been created thousands of years ago by the Sumerians, but the type most people are familiar with is the Chinese Suanpan Abacus, originally created around 190 CE.

Chinese Suanpan Abacus.
Originally, the Suanpan was constructed of wood, but the device I have is made of a sturdy plastic that has yellowed over the decades since it was manufactured. I don't know for sure when this one in particular was sold, but there is a logo and vague information stamped on the back. If anyone happens to recognize the logo, please let me know because I'd love to learn more about the company.

Please let me know if you recognize this logo.
It's hard to make a device that works by simply sliding beads function poorly, and thankfully this device works just fine. Aside from the material used to make it, this abacus isn't any different than the original design. It was a tool that proved useful for many generations and some people swear they're still the best calculator available.

Personally, I prefer electronic calculators. But no self-respecting calculator enthusiast should have and maintain a collection without an abacus or five. They're an important part of a very rich history of mathematics.

So would I recommend a Suanpan Abacus? Honestly, no, not for any practical use. The Soroban is the superior device. But if you want to appreciate this piece of history and learn to calculate the way people did long before electronic calculators, it's definitely worth playing around with.

I found this particular Suanpan at Goodwill for 50 cents. It's easy to miss these at thrift shops because they're never assigned to any particular category and are often buried under other things.

Back view.

Can also be operated sideways, like this.

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