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The modern era (Showa) sorobans are approximately the same size as slide rules making them very portable, even for the pocket.If you are a regular visitor to ISRM you will have noticed the other new gallery on 'slide rule calculators' which was inspired by the 40th anniversary of the introduction of the HP-35 electronic slide rule, or scientific calculator.After all, the United States national debt is in the trillions which is 10 and only needs 14 digits, counting two decimal points, to display.A good friend of mine, Jiro Higuchi in Japan, explained: "In Japan sorobans are still being manufactured for education.The Chinese Abacus was an early aid for mathematical computations.Its only value is that it aids the memory of the human performing the calculation. The earliest known written documentation of the Chinese abacus dates to the 2nd century BC.
Early electronic calculators could only handle 8 to 10 significant digits, whereas suanpans can be built to virtually limitless precision.The Salamis Tablet was an early counting device (also known as a "counting board") dating from around 300 B. that was discovered on the island of Salamis in 1846.A precursor to the abacus, it is thought that it represents a Babylonian means of performing mathematical calculations common in the ancient world.I would never have believed that one could do square roots on them, along with multiplication and division, even though most people used them purely for addition and subtraction.As I acquired artifacts for the gallery, I was puzzled with many Japanese sorobans had upwards of 21 digits, or columns of beads.
But when the functionality of calculators improved beyond simple arithmetic operations, most people realized that the suanpan could never compute higher functions, such as those in trigonometry, faster than a calculator.