Arcane abacus geekery.


My brother has been into abacuses all my life. He recently told me he’d found an obscure paper from over 100 years ago on cube roots and was working on translating it to modern abacus technique. (I hadn’t known that abacus technique changes over time, but apparently it does.) He seems to have finally done so.

Anyway, this Abacus Cube Roots page is by him and someone else in his abacus group. I won’t pretend to understand it, but from what he’s said about working it out, it sounds pretty impressive and like something he’s been trying to get right for a long time.

And I somehow figure that given the sorts of people who read my blog, some of you might just find this interesting. ;-)

(Edited to add: Shane suggested Totton’s home page as a good place to start if you’re looking for more basic information than the advanced cube root stuff, and also apparently keys to the diagrams.)

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

11 responses »

  1. Oh, nifty! I’m actually in the middle of a Cranmer (soroban modified for use by blind people) abacus correspondence course. I’ll send my teacher a link to that page, I think she might appreciate it!

  2. Wow, that is some very, uh, *dense* writing. If I were to attempt to understand it, I’d have to have my hands on an actual soroban of the type described, and actually go through the physical manipulations.

    It is way kewl, and thanks, Ma’am!

  3. I don’t understand it myself, but it would be very useful to somebody who does. I know how to calculate cubes, but have to do it in my own way, which involves a lot of addition.
    Byu the way, did you know that the word “calculus” literally means “voting with pebbles”? The Ancient Greeks used to have a system of voting where they’d put these little pebbles into jars. When the Romans found about about this they called the procedure “calculus”, because of the stones (think of calcium or calcified) and in turn that came to mean counting.

  4. Thank you for posting this!

    I’d be confused too if my first introduction to the abacus had been square and cube roots!
    Instead of following that “deep link” to my cube root page, try this link to Totton’s website itself:
    The introduction, “Abacus: Mystery of the Bead,” will clear up any confusion over the dense diagrams, and enable you to read any of the many advanced pages on this site (click on “My page of advanced techniques…”) including my “Japanese cube root” page, in any order you choose.

    My reason for putting up the page was to make cube roots on the soroban available to any interested member of the general public, not just a few experts. I’m overjoyed that it may be getting attention from the Cranmer abacus people and the blind community!

  5. Hi Amanda. I tagged you with a meme.
    I hope you don’t mind. I am commenting here as opposed to the post regarding Kassiane due to the fact that this is way too unimportant to clog those comments with something of this nature. And, yes, I did take the time to send something to Kassiane prior to spending the time writing my post and then tagging you – I do try to keep my priorities straight.
    Anyhow, I don’t know if this is your thing or not, but if so then consider yourself tagged.


  6. Nothing to do with abacus, but still of possible interest to geeks in general, but particularly geeks who love astronomy:

    Scientists have asked lay people around the world to help them catalog galaxies by type (spiral, elipitcal, etc). The link above takes you to the article about it. takes you to the site where you can get a few minutes of on-line training in cataloging galaxies and get started.

    I don’t normally consider myself a geek, at least not in the sense of actually understanding computers (beyond the basics) or, er, understanding the inherent appeal of abacus (sorry, Shane Baggs!). But I’m geeky enough to find cataloging galaxies fun :-)

  7. Aha! I still don’t understand it but now I’ve seen the soroban abacuses I can see there’s more rows than I’m used to.

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