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China's 800-Year-Old iPhone

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While China's recent performance may be a disappointment, averaged across the millennia no other nation has provided the world with such an abundant wellspring of innovation. Have a look at this long list of Chinese inventions. Not a day passes for most of us when we don't rely on at least one product of Chinese ingenuity, be it paper money, the bristle toothbrush, toilet paper, oil wells. A slightly smaller group of us wouldn't want to long tolerate life without noodles, steamed or stir-fried food, tofu, tea, alcoholic drinks.

Left off the Wikipedia list is one other Chinese gadget that played a central role in people's lives, especially in East Asia, for centuries and then abruptly disappeared over the last two decades. It's also my personal favorite among all Chinese inventions, the abacus. I grieve over its extinction.

When I first got to China in 1981, the abacus was ubiquitous - in every shop, bank, schoolroom and government office. If it had to be counted or calculated, an abacus was required. I still remember the loud and ceaseless clicking sound inside the main room of Nanjing's cavernous People's Bank as dozens of clerks tabulated and re-tabulated sums, louder and more rhythmic than the clatter of cicadas outside. Cheap electric calculators and PCs not only killed off the abacus they also have turned China's banks and offices into quieter more monotonous spaces.

Among all Chinese inventions, nothing quite rivals an abacus, or "算盘 suanpan" in Chinese, for pure "out of the box" ingenuity. There's no clear predecessor machine, and no real evolution or improvement from the device that is first described almost eight hundred years ago in Chinese books and begins appearing in Chinese paintings five hundred years ago.

Though the name of the inventor (or inventors) is lost to history, none but a towering genius could invent a portable lightweight tool and the accompanying fingering technique to allow a few rows of beads separated on two stacked decks, five beads on the lower and two on the upper, to perform high-speed, accurate multiplication, division, addition, subtraction, square root and cube root operations. In geek-speak, hardware and software are proprietary and seamlessly integrated. The abacus, unlike the modern electronic calculator, is as easily used for calculations in base ten (decimal), base 16 (hexidecimal) or any other base you might choose.

Europe and America, so dominant in most spheres of invention these last 400 years, contributed in the 17th century the slide rule and adding machine to the technology of calculation. But, neither achieved the widespread use in teaching and daily life the abacus enjoyed for centuries. Most Chinese aged over 30 (as well as tens of millions in other parts of Asia) were taught in school to use an abacus. While most have since sadly forgotten how to use one, they once could manipulate the wooden beads as quickly and accurately as skilled touch typists.

I recently went off to see if I could buy an old wooden abacus. It's harder than you'd think. My guess is there were at least 400 million abacuses in China thirty years ago. Today, they've completely disappeared from sight. I can't recall a single time I've seen one in use during the last five years living full-time in China. Something of great functional beauty and utility has gone out of Chinese lives.

I did eventually succeed in finding one at an antique market in Shenzhen. It looked to me, based on the filigree bronze hinges, to be about 120 years old. The seller, in his early 60s, had forgotten how to use it, as did everyone else who gathered around to watch me bargain for it, with the exception of one handsome older woman trained in the early 1970s as an accountant. I asked the seller to give us some random four-digit numbers to add and subtract, with me using the calculator on my phone and her using the old abacus. In each case, she was quicker than me. I had to repeat each number in my head before tapping on the keyboard. Her fingers, on the other hand, were in motion from the first sound. It was a virtuoso performance.

An abacus is not a calculator, in the sense that you punch in numbers and it spits out an answer. "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," explain the experts at Canada's Ryerson University.

After polishing away the dust, I put the abacus on the table in the CFC's meeting room. I'm determined to learn better how to use it, but conscious of ebbing mental and physical dexterity.

It looks like nothing else on the planet, and yet it shares similarities with an iconic device invented from 800 years later (in 2007) in Silicon Valley. A swipe-operated high-tech tool, with a simple rectangular design, its engineering elegant yet practical, and an intuitive interface that allows anyone with a little practice, from kids to old folks, to solve routinely and quickly a host of problems once thought too challenging for ordinary folk. The iPhone is the abacus of our age.