21 December 2017

An abacus in a pile of toys

I was at my brother’s house recently when I noticed an abacus sitting in my niece’s pile of toys. I paused for a moment and realized I had never learned how to actually use one. I think in my childhood, I wrote it off as some antiquated tool for people who didn’t have access to calculators or couldn’t just do the math in their heads.

Given the marvelous world we live in and how we have access to information right at our fingertips at all times, I searched on my phone and came across this video youtube.com/watch?v=wxsS-gmz554.

The video is 6 minutes long, but I paused it a couple times to play around with the abacus in front of me and try out the various operations myself. After about 10 minutes total, I now knew how to do addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division—even division that goes down to decimal points—with an abacus. Not only did I learn these operations, but I immediately gained appreciation for how well of a job it does at getting one to think visually about how the different powers of 10 interact with these types of operations. It’s really cool to think how familiarity with an abacus can aid someone in immediately adding and subtracting large numbers in their own heads. It’s also cool how you can use the top section to keep track of the math while doing multiplication or division.

I came away from this experience as seeing learning the abacus as a great way to teach people how to approach math problems in different ways. This fits well into my own take on math, which is that the journey is more important than the destination. Understanding various ways to think about a problem and why it works is empowering, it builds creativity, and it makes solving any other math problems easier.

Furthermore, this was a simple reminder to be open to different ideas and learning new things. It’s easy to write-off something that you don’t understand, and I think all of us can look back into our pasts and see various things we initially rejected before actually learning or experiencing them.

While I don’t see myself employing an abacus for an application to my job or everyday life, I’m really happy I chanced across one and took the time to learn about this piece of technology that has existed for thousands of years!

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Peter Coles

Peter Coles

is a software engineer who lives in NYC, works at Ringly, and blogs here.
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