(Click on the thumbnails for more detail.)

Antique Suan Pan (212 kb)My sister in law purchased this Chinese suan pan in "an old dusty shop" near Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok, Thailand. It probably dates to around 1950. Typically suan pan are not marked with unit rods. As a result, it's common practice for owners to carve symbols into the beams of a hardworking suan pan to help keep track of calculations. This suan pan is no exception. Starting at the sixth rod in from the right, a previous owner has carved out Chinese characters signifying units, tens, hundreds, thousands and ten thousands. Flags from all over the world decorate the frame. Over the years the reinforcing copper end-plates have become aged with green. Construction is a typical 13 rod frame with 2 beads above the beam and 5 beads below. This suan pan is 15 inches long by 7 inches wide and weighs just over 1 kilogram (2.2lbs). It's by far the heftiest of any of the pieces I own.

Old Soroban (247 kb)This soroban was found in a "recycle shop" (second hand store) in Hachinohe, a city at the northern tip of the island of Honshu, Japan. The soroban is very heavy due in part to the stainless steel that reinforces the back of the reckoning bar. A lot of people are surprised at the small size of modern-day soroban, especially if they first learned on a Chinese suan pan. This one is a very typical 1:4 bead, 27 rod soroban circa 1960. The frame looks to be ebony. This is a real workhorse and one of my favorites. It measures 15 inches long by 2.5 inches wide and the beads are about 1.25 cm across.

YanagiSawa Soroban (175 kb) With its ebony frame, bone reckoning bar and black inlay unit markers this is the most beautiful of all my soroban. It was purchased at an outdoor market next to a Shinto shrine in a suburb of Tokyo. The Kanji on the box reads Yanagisawa which means "Willow on the Marsh". I think it's the name of the original owner. The box has been branded with the same name. (Circle brand visible in the middle of the box.) The box is made of cedar and has kept the soroban in perfect condition for nearly 100 years. The soroban has 27 rods with 1 bead above the beam and 5 beads below. It's 15.5 inches long by 3 inches wide.

  Merchant Soroban (194 kb)
A merchant soroban, so called because it is quite a bit larger than the two soroban above. When conducting business, shopkeepers find it easier to do calculations using a larger frame. This soroban was found at an estate sale in Massachusetts. I was told it had been used by a Japanese shopkeeper working in the area. When I first saw it, it looked like it had been stored in someone's garden shed because it was covered with dirt.  The bead configuration is the older 1:5 style. It measures 15.5 inches by 4.5 inches. Age unknown.

Perkins Soroban (111 kb)A lovely 27 rod, 1:4 bead soroban purchased on Ebay in 2002. The centre unit marker has three dots grouped together - red in the middle flanked by black on either side. The soroban came with a flyer (120kb pdf file) for a company called 'Perkins Abacus Service'. On the supporting slats at the back of the soroban I found two stickers; one for for the Perkins Company and another that's quite faded but still readable. It's the name and address of a previous owner. If you look closely you can see it's dated Sept.3, 1959. The soroban has reinforced metal ends and measures 15 inches x 2.5 inches.

Sharp SoroCal 182 kbSharp electronics began making "SoroCal" (sorokaru or sorotaku in Japanese) in 1978. It was a time when electronic calculators were becoming less expensive and were gaining popularity in many parts of the world. But for the Japanese who were used to the traditional soroban, these new calculators were looked upon with suspicion. In combining a new idea with the traditional soroban Sharp hoped to sway a doubting public. This model ELSI MATE EL-8048 was released in January of 1979 and is made entirely of plastic. It was purchased at auction on Ebay and came with a dark blue velvet cover and pamphlet (200kb pdf file). It measures 12 inches by 3.5 inches and is 7/8 of an inch deep.

Small Antique Soroban (114 kb)

This tiny soroban came in a lot of 6 abaci I purchased on Ebay. It's been beautifully made and although I don't know the wood, I love the way the beads move and feel. Presumably the soroban pre-dates the 1930's because it too has been made in the 1:5 bead style. I like to think that at one time it must have fit nicely in someone's kimono or purse. It's only 4.25 inches long by 2.25 inches wide.

The Lee's Abacus (428 kb)
The Lee Kai-chen Abacus was developed and manufactured in Taiwan, China. Few of these remarkable instruments remain as production only lasted a few years. On the beam of the suan pan in the lower part of the frame there is an adjustable 'place setting vernier'. With a moveable indicator that runs along the bottom rail and adjustable unit rod markers on the beam of the soroban above Lee called his abacus, "A Revolution of Chinese Calculators." This abacus was made circa 1959 and comes with a 58 page instruction manual. The abacus measures 13 inches long by 8 inches wide. For a demonstration of Lee's Abacus please see:  The Lee Kai-chen Abacus



cranmer Abacus (114 kb)


Named for its creator Tim Cranmer, the cranmer abacus is a 13 rod, 1:4 bead soroban most commonly used by those individuals who are blind or visually impaired. It's main feature is the felt backing behind the beads that helps stabilize movement and prevents the beads from slipping. Each rod is marked with a raised dot, every third rod with a raised bar. Shown here are two abaci and a joiner that allows the two abaci to be joined together to create one large 26 rod instrument (see detail photo). I have long wished to own a cranmer and this one comes to me as a wonderful gift from my friend and mentor Edvaldo Siqueira, an abacus operator of the first order who lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Abacus is made from plastic and measures just over 6 inches long by 3 inches wide.


Small Antique Soroban (114 kb)

Ray McCulloch Prescot of Merseyside, England in the U.K. writes, "... pictures of the instruments [soroban] fascinated me and I was hooked. Being an engineer (retired) and having a workshop at the back of my garden, I just had to make one. I quickly scribbled a working drawing, dugout the materials and got to work..."  This stunningly beautiful little 9 rod soroban came as a very much appreciated gift from Ray. The frame is Aluminium - the rods stainless steel. The heaven and earth beads are respectively stainless steel and brass. The soroban measures just over 3.25 inches long by 1.5 inches wide. Update: Ray shares photos of his other masterworks.


Russian stschoty (125 kb) This Russian schoty (счёты) measures 8.5 inches long by 5.5 inches wide and was found in a small shop in the Russian countryside. I purchased it at auction on Ebay. The frame is made of birch and has been put together using tongue and groove construction methods. The beads are made of polished wood and the fifth and sixth bead in each row is painted black for an easy visual reference.  This particular abacus dates to around 1970 and is typical of the style. Notice the fourth row from the bottom; it only has four beads. This allows for calculations of 1/4 ruble. Older models have a second row of four beads at the very bottom of the frame allowing for calculations of 1/4 kopek. Simple calculations involving addition and subtraction are easily done. If anyone can provide insight into solving problems of multiplication and division using traditional schoty methods, I'd be very grateful for an email.


  Merchant Soroban (194 kb)
Gary Flom shares photos of his 24 karat gold plated soroban. He purchased it at auction on Ebay from a family who bought it at an estate sale. Gary writes, "It is a joy to use, as the beads have a very pleasant click and it is heavy enough that you don't have to hold it. I find it is less prone to accidental bead movements and bead shifting with slight jarring due to the heavier weight of both the beads and frame over other abaci of this size. The metal rods are also less slippery than bamboo, yet very smooth, which also helps in this regard." The soroban measures 7.2 inches long by 2.2 inches wide and weighs just under one pound.


Back to: Abacus: Mystery of the Bead

Photographs by
Mats Flemstrom
& Totton Heffelfinger
Toronto Ontario

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Totton Heffelfinger   Toronto Ontario  Canada