Milestone-Proposal:The Abacus

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Docket #:2013-30

This is a draft proposal, that has not yet been submitted. To submit this proposal, click on the edit button in toolbar above, indicated by an icon displaying a pencil on paper. At the bottom of the form, check the box that says "Submit this proposal to the IEEE History Committee for review. Only check this when the proposal is finished" and save the page.

To the proposer’s knowledge, is this achievement subject to litigation?

Is the achievement you are proposing more than 25 years old? Yes

Is the achievement you are proposing within IEEE’s designated fields as defined by IEEE Bylaw I-104.11, namely: Engineering, Computer Sciences and Information Technology, Physical Sciences, Biological and Medical Sciences, Mathematics, Technical Communications, Education, Management, and Law and Policy. Yes

Did the achievement provide a meaningful benefit for humanity? Yes

Was it of at least regional importance? Yes

Has an IEEE Organizational Unit agreed to pay for the milestone plaque(s)? Yes

Has an IEEE Organizational Unit agreed to arrange the dedication ceremony? Yes

Has the IEEE Section in which the milestone is located agreed to take responsibility for the plaque after it is dedicated? Yes

Has the owner of the site agreed to have it designated as an IEEE Milestone? Yes

Year or range of years in which the achievement occurred:

before 570 C.E.

Title of the proposed milestone:

Chinese Improvements to the Abacus, before 570 C.E.

Plaque citation summarizing the achievement and its significance:

The abacus, which was already used in China by 570 C.E., is one of the earliest calculating mechanisms known. A typical Chinese abacus is constructed as a bamboo frame with beads sliding on rods. An abacus helps people keep track of numbers as they calculate, and it was an early step towards the design of automatic calculators.

200-250 word abstract describing the significance of the technical achievement being proposed, the person(s) involved, historical context, humanitarian and social impact, as well as any possible controversies the advocate might need to review.

IEEE technical societies and technical councils within whose fields of interest the Milestone proposal resides.

In what IEEE section(s) does it reside?


IEEE Organizational Unit(s) which have agreed to sponsor the Milestone:

IEEE Organizational Unit(s) paying for milestone plaque(s):

Unit: Institute of Computing Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Senior Officer Name: Ninghui Sun

IEEE Organizational Unit(s) arranging the dedication ceremony:

Unit: Institute of Computing Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Senior Officer Name: Ninghui Sun

IEEE section(s) monitoring the plaque(s):

IEEE Section: Beijing
IEEE Section Chair name: Hua Li

Milestone proposer(s):

Proposer name: Binzhang Fu
Proposer email: Proposer's email masked to public

Please note: your email address and contact information will be masked on the website for privacy reasons. Only IEEE History Center Staff will be able to view the email address.

Street address(es) and GPS coordinates in decimal form of the intended milestone plaque site(s):

6 Kexueyuan Nan Road, Haidian District, Beijing, China 100190

Describe briefly the intended site(s) of the milestone plaque(s). The intended site(s) must have a direct connection with the achievement (e.g. where developed, invented, tested, demonstrated, installed, or operated, etc.). A museum where a device or example of the technology is displayed, or the university where the inventor studied, are not, in themselves, sufficient connection for a milestone plaque.

Please give the address(es) of the plaque site(s) (GPS coordinates if you have them). Also please give the details of the mounting, i.e. on the outside of the building, in the ground floor entrance hall, on a plinth on the grounds, etc. If visitors to the plaque site will need to go through security, or make an appointment, please give the contact information visitors will need. The building belongs to the Institute of Computing Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Are the original buildings extant?


Details of the plaque mounting:

It is expected that the plaque location will be the square outside front door of the ICT building.

How is the site protected/secured, and in what ways is it accessible to the public?

The plaque will be very near the front door of ICT building, and there are 24-hour security guards. Anybody could visit the plaque at anytime without the need to make an appointment.

Who is the present owner of the site(s)?

Institute of Computing Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences

What is the historical significance of the work (its technological, scientific, or social importance)? If personal names are included in citation, include justification here. (see section 6 of Milestone Guidelines)

A typical Chinese abacus is constructed as a bamboo frame with several wires. The number of wires is not fixed and usually between nine and fifteen. On each wire, there are seven sliding beads separated into two groups by a horizontal beam. The first group, which is above the beam, has two beads each of which counted as 5. The other group, on the other hand, is below the beam and has five beads each of which counted as 1. By moving the beads up and down, the abacus can not only do addition and subtraction, but also do multiplication and division easily. The Chinese abacus has a great impact on the computing technology due to its two important features. First, it adopts the quinary system different from the decimal system, which is much earlier than the electronic computer's binary system and proves that the non-decimal system could be built efficiently. More importantly, abacus is naturally "float" -- the position of the decimal point can be set arbitrary, thus greatly expand the range of operands.

The Chinese abacus, which has a history of thousands of years, is widely used in stores before the electrical calculators became popular in China. As for the history of Chinese abacus, Needham has given a comprehensive and rigorous examination in his book, namely the Science & Civilisation in China [1]. Here, we quote the conclusions “The fact that there is no complete description of the abacus in its modern form before the Suan Fa Thung Tsung of Chhéng Ta-Wei (+ 1593) (see Fig. 70) has led many, including Mei Wen-Ting, to conclude that it did not become known in China until the end of the + 15th century. Yet the earliest illustration of it is in the Hsin Pien Tui Hsiang Ssu Yen of + 1436 (Goodrich, S). Besides, no one has noticed that the Lu Thang Shih Hua (Foothill Hall Essays) of + 1513, written by Li Tung-Yang, describes the abacus clearly as the ‘moving-ball plate' (chu chih tsou phan) which was operated according to rules and standard methods. But here enters in the difficult problem of the Shu Shu Chi I (Memoir on some Traditions of Mathematical Art), which is attributed to Hsü Yo at the end of the Later Han (about + 190), but which may possibly have been actually written by its commentator, Chen Luan (c. + 570). In either case, it is much the earliest work which speaks of ' ball arithmetic'.” Furthermore, there are some interesting clues to prove the long history of abacus. For example, there is a famous painting, whose name is “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” [2], clearly shows that the Chinese abacus is widely used by the ancient merchants in the Song dynasty which is 1,000 years ago.

Finally, the Chinese abacus has an important historical position in China and also has a far-reaching influence on the world. The abacus since Ming dynasty spread over many countries, such as Japan, Korea, United States and Russia. Especially in Japan, the abacus was greatly valued. "Reading, writing and using abacus" became the requirement for basic knowledge and skills of Japan's national elementary education. In 2007, the Chinese abacus was both voted as the most important one among the 101 and 50 inventions that influenced the development of human beings respectively by British newspaper the Independent [3] and the Indian newspaper Times of India [4]. China's Zhusuan that is the knowledge and practice of arithmetic calculation using an abacus, was officially listed as an intangible cultural heritage at the 8th Annual UNESCO World Heritage Congress on December 4th in Baku, Azerbaijan [5].

What obstacles (technical, political, geographic) needed to be overcome?

What features set this work apart from similar achievements?

As for the relationship between the Chinese abacus and the ones in other civilizations, Dr. Needham has given a rigorous discussions in his book entitled Science & Civilisation in China [1]. According to their investigations, the Salamis abacus is quite reasonably placed as late as the +3rd or +4th century which is later than the Chinese abacus (about the 2nd century). The Roman abacus is quite similar with the Chinese one. Furthermore, Roman Empire and China had a trade relationship in that years. Thus, someone guesses that one of them should have inspired the other. However, there is no direct evidence to demonstrate the relationship. Therefore, some other people argue that the similarity arises from fact that there are five fingers per hand of every people. Based on above observations, Dr. Needham concluded that “perhaps the best provisional conclusion is that of Sarton that independent inventions took place”.

Despite the historical relationship, there are some differences between Chinese abacus and others. First, the radix point of Chinese abacus is floating. Thus, it is more flexible than others with fixed radix point, such as Salamis and Roman abacus. Second, along each rod of the Chinese abacus, there are two beads in the upper deck and five beads in the bottom. Therefore, the Chinese abacus is convenient for both decimal and hexadecimal computation. Finally, operating Chinese abacus is much faster than others because the beads can be moved much faster along the rods than the grooves adopted by the Roman abacus.

Supporting texts and citations to establish the dates, location, and importance of the achievement: Minimum of five (5), but as many as needed to support the milestone, such as patents, contemporary newspaper articles, journal articles, or chapters in scholarly books. 'Scholarly' is defined as peer-reviewed, with references, and published. You must supply the texts or excerpts themselves, not just the references. At least one of the references must be from a scholarly book or journal article. All supporting materials must be in English, or accompanied by an English translation.

[1]. Needham, Joseph. “Science & Civilisation in China”, Vol. III, Mathematics, Cambridge University Press, 1959.

[2]. Along the river during the Qingming festival, China Online Museum,

[3]. 101 of the Greatest Inventions of All Time,

[4]. 50 inventions that changed the world,

[5]. Chinese Zhusuan, knowledge and practices of mathematical calculation through the abacus,

Supporting materials (supported formats: GIF, JPEG, PNG, PDF, DOC): All supporting materials must be in English, or if not in English, accompanied by an English translation. You must supply the texts or excerpts themselves, not just the references. For documents that are copyright-encumbered, or which you do not have rights to post, email the documents themselves to Please see the Milestone Program Guidelines for more information.


Please email a jpeg or PDF a letter in English, or with English translation, from the site owner(s) giving permission to place IEEE milestone plaque on the property, and a letter (or forwarded email) from the appropriate Section Chair supporting the Milestone application to with the subject line "Attention: Milestone Administrator." Note that there are multiple texts of the letter depending on whether an IEEE organizational unit other than the section will be paying for the plaque(s).

Please recommend reviewers by emailing their names and email addresses to Please include the docket number and brief title of your proposal in the subject line of all emails.