On December 5, 2013, the Chinese traditional method of calculations using the Abacus was listed as a UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage. The Abacus, called Suanpan in Chinese, is considered as the world’s most ancient computer. It has more than 1,800 years of history. It is worth mentioning that others, such as Japanese cuisine, including sushi and the traditional food preparation methods and their culture have also been listed in the Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The following picture shows the Suanpan I bought a while ago at China town in Houston. It is so cool to have the ancestor of the modern computer in our office, especially since we are an engineering software company.
A typical Suanpan is about 20 cm (8 in) tall and it comes in various widths. It usually has more than seven rods. There are two beads on each rod in the upper deck and five beads on each rod in the bottom deck. This configuration is used for both decimal and hexadecimal computation. The beads are usually rounded and made of a hardwood. The beads are counted by moving them up or down towards the beam. The Suanpan can be reset to the starting position instantly by a quick jerk around the horizontal axis to spin all the beads away from the horizontal beam at the center.
Suanpans can be used for functions other than counting, for instance, very efficient Suanpan techniques have been developed to do multiplication, division, addition, subtraction, square root and cube root operations at high speed. Operating a Suanpan does not require electricity or batteries; only fingers are needed.
In the semiconductor industry there is Moore’s Law, which is an observation made in 1965 by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel. Moore’s law has proven that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. Most experts, including Moore himself, expect Moore’s law to hold for at least another two decades.
No matter how fast technology evolves, some devices such as the Suanpan, still have the same design as when they were first invented. I don’t know if that’s good news for Suanpan manufacturers. As a software vendor, we have to continuously upgrade our drilling software, not for the sake of upgrading, but to include any new operation methods or new drilling tools that are being used in the field. Our latest Dr.DE (drilling engineering toolbox software) has migrated to the internet and has become a web-based application.
I really do not like to change computers, but I love to upgrade software! Maybe this is probably because I am in the software business, but one thing is for sure, having at my reach the most ancient computer and the latest drilling software makes me feel that I have the best of both worlds.