Early Counting Tools

A computer is a machine that works with data and information in the form of numbers. People from the beginning of time, and throughout the years, have invented and continue to invent things that help them count.

cavemanwriting.gif Caveman counted with the only counting tools they knew, their fingers and toes. These were considered the first counting tools. Soon man realized that other objects needed to be used to keep up with larger numbers. Some of the other counting tools that have been used throughout time have been stones, knots on ropes (quipu), and notches on sticks, notches on bones, tally sticks, to name just a few. People used these counting tools to count their possessions and also to keep tract of the passing of time.


The oldest known objects used to represent numbers are bones with notches carved into them.

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These bones, which were discovered in western Europe, date from the Aurignacian period 20,000 to 30,000 years ago and correspond to the first appearance of Cro-Magno man.

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Of special interest is a wolf's jawbone more than 20,000 years old with fifty-five notches in groups of five. This bone, which was discovered in Czechoslovakia in 1937, is the first evidence of the tally system.

Another form of manual counting used was knotted strings, quipa_lrg.jpgsometimes known as the quipu. In their simplest form, knotted number strings are much the same as the simple tally sticks. Counting with the use of knotted strings has been found all over the world. The Inca Indians in particular were known for using the quipu.






It is important to distinguish the early abacuses (or abaci) known as counting boards from the modern abaci. The counting board is a piece of wood, stone or metal with carved grooves abacus2.jpgor painted lines between which beads, pebbles or metal discs were moved. The abacus is a device, usually of wood (plastic, in recent times), having a frame that holds rods with freely-sliding beads mounted on them.

Both the abacus and the counting board are mechanical aids used for counting; they are not calculators in the sense we use the word today. The person operating the abacus performs calculations in their head and uses the abacus as a physical aid to keep track of the sums, the carrys, etc.

Counting boards and counting tablets were also used to represent everyday calculations such as goods bought and sold.


The oldest surviving counting board is the Salamis tablet (originally thought to be a gaming board), used by the Babylonians circa 300 B.C., discovered in 1846 on the island of Salamis.



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