History Lesson

The first computer? Let’s go back in time. Looking out the window of the Wayback machine, we see a hand-held computer flying by, a PC, a hulking Cray, then Univac, Edvac and Eniac, followed by Charles Babbage’s gorgeously named Difference Engine, and then, as the mists gather, Jacquard’s 19th-century punch-card loom, Pascal’s 17th-century adding machine and, finally, way, way back, the abacus.

The abacus is a form of counting board. The oldest surviving specimen is the 2,300-year-old Babylonian Salamis tablet, but the modern abacus was born in 13th-century China and is still being used by merchants all over Asia. Strictly speaking, it’s a manual calculator that uses beads or disks. Even more strictly speaking, the abacus doesn’t actually calculate, it enables calculation by remembering what’s been counted.

In 1946, in a humbled Japan, the U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes sponsored a race between an electric calculator and an abacus. If the point was to demonstrate the superiority of Western technology, it failed. The abacus won easily.

On the other hand, way back when, the man at the laundry where I picked up my father’s shirts used an abacus to add up the bill and he was always, always wrong.

Not the abacus’s fault – user error.