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Calculating instrument that uses beads that slide along a series of wires or rods set in a frame to represent the decimal places. Probably of Babylonian origin, it is the ancestor of the modern digital calculator. Used by merchants in the Middle Ages throughout Europe and the Arabic world, it was gradually replaced by arithmetic based on Hindu-Arabic numerals. Though rarely used in Europe past the 18th century, it is still used in the Middle East, China, and Japan.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on abacus, visit Britannica.com.