The Abacus Is Still A Low-Tech Wonder

by Kevin Burton

   Do you remember any of the gifts you received in fourth grade? Do you have any of them still? Are they in working order?

   I have one.

   In fourth grade our teachers at the Ohio State School for the Blind sat us down and introduced us to Mrs. Davidow.  In turn Mrs. Davidow introduced us to the abacus. She patiently taught us how to add, subtract, multiply and divide using a 3-inch by 6-inch hard plastic device, with thirteen rows of beads.

   Davidow taught sighted as well as blind students and teachers how to use the abacus. But for us blind students in particular, the abacus was an equalizer, giving us a tool to keep up with or surpass our sighted peers in mathematics.

   What a gift! And that gift is by my side to this day, although Mrs. Davidow might shake her head at the ways I use the device.  

   The woman we knew as Mrs. Davidow was actually Dr. Mae E. Davidow, who earned a BA from New Jersey College for Women, then a Masters and a Doctorate from Temple University.

   Davidow lost her sight at age ten and began attending the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia.  She taught at Overbook from 1935 to 1971. At that point she apparently began visiting schools for the blind, teaching the abacus. And, she wrote a book.

   “Using the Cranmer Abacus is an excellent text written by Fred L. Gissoni of the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services, Kentucky Department of Education, at Lexington, Kentucky,” Davidow wrote in the forward to ‘The Abacus Made Easy, Second Edition.’ “In 1964 I attended the Abacus Institute at the University of Kentucky, held under the direction of Mr. Gissoni. This was the first such institute ever conducted in America.”

   Davidow taught mathematics using the abacus and Gissoni’s text, but soon found it desirable to have a simplified version.  With his permission, she developed one. This is what she brought with her to Columbus to teach my classmates and me how to conquer math.

   “It is my hope that this manual will make the teaching and the learning of the abacus more meaningful to both students and teachers,” Davidow wrote.


   On a recent Sunday, some 50 years after Davidow and I last chatted, I tuned my radio to 103.7 KEYN Wichita, to the broadcast of Wichita State Shockers basketball, versus Tulane.

   I kept score of the game, with the Wichita State score (as the road team) on the left two rows of the abacus, and Tulane on the right.  I counted down the minutes and seconds remaining in the game with four of the rows in the middle of the abacus.

   I shudder to think what Davidow would think of this. But this is where I live.  It was pure love that Davidow poured into her efforts to teach us. I bet the vast majority of my surviving classmates have an abacus or two and are using them for something.

    In school we used to count on the abacus. You would be in a class and you could hear the quiet clicking of the beads as people counted for the sake of counting. 

   It was also a means of passing notes in class without the teachers knowing. You put the numbers on the abacus that corresponded to the letters in the English alphabet, with one column of space between them.

   To illustrate: I gave my mother an abacus, which she keeps because it means so much to me and maybe because I used to keep our scrabble scores on it.

   She has it at her place. On it, I wrote “mercy”: 13, 5, 18, 3, 25.   

   I just asked Alexa “what is 73 million to the ninth power.”  She said it is “approximately 5.887 times 10 to the 70th power.”

    Half a century beyond 1972, with that level of mathematical calculation available on a whim, what possible use can an abacus be?

   Maybe not as much now as then. But still, plenty. I use it to write down phone numbers when my notebook is not in reach. I use it to remind myself how much weight I need to lose, with the latest bad news from my talking scale displayed on the left columns of the abacus I have next to the computer in my office.

   But thanks to Davidow’s book, I now know I am an abacus slacker!

    On the abacus, you can do, decimals, fractions and square roots! Holy cow, I never got more complicated than figuring earned run averages for baseball pitchers (earned runs times nine, divided by innings pitched).

   Davidow was born Sept. 20, 1911 and died of cancer June 12, 1989.  I wish I could have known her as an adult, just to thank her for her dedication to the lives of blind children.  

   It may be the lowest of low-tech, but to me, the abacus still counts.

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1 Comment

  1. This is a great piece and I still love my abacus as well. I never knew the person you wrote about here, but I learned to use the abacus when I started school at OSSB. I still have one today and am looking to buy a new one. Great thing to have, whether you actively use it as a calculating piece or just jot notes of various kinds on it. 🙂

    Tracy Duffy



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