It All Adds Up: The History of the Calculator

By | May 6, 2019

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The teacher teaches kids knowledge of abacus in Hengshui City. Source: (Xinhua/Zhu Xudong via Getty Images)

Since no one likes doing mental math, humans have devices ways of calculating numbers that require very little brain power. And it is a good thing they have! Where would we be without our handy calculators when we need to figure out how much to tip our servers, how much our overtime paycheck will be, or how much to pay the babysitter? The invention of the calculator that we all use today is the result of a long line of devices—from abacuses to slide rules—created to take the brain hurt out of math. 

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The Abacus

We often consider the abacus to be a Chinese invention, but historians now believe that this early computation device was actually created in Sumeria around the year 2500 BC. The abacus worked by holding place values in columns of beads, pebbles, or shells. By manipulating the number of beads in each column, the user could make complex addition and subtraction calculations. The Chinese improved upon the concept by stringing the beads on wire columns in a frame to make it easier to use and more portable…good for merchants and tradesman. The biggest limitation to the abacus, however, is that it only works for addition and subtractions problems.