The World’s Earliest Decimal Calculation Tool

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The World’s Earliest Decimal Calculation Tool

Are decimals a newly discovered math concept, and can only be calculated using the modern calculator?

Math had been on the minds of Chinese since a long time ago. More than 2,300 years ago, the Chinese had already developed what has been officially recognised by the Guinness World of Book Records as the world’s earliest decimal calculation tool – a set of bamboo slips.

“The significance is that it’s decimal, not duo-decimal as seen in other countries. Decimal did not appear in Europe until the 15th century,” said Professor Li Xueqin, head of the Research and Conservation Centre for Excavated Texts of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

There are 21 slips in all, each 43.5 cm long and 1.2 cm wide. These slips are crafted around 305BC during the Warring States period.

Using the slips, multiplication and division of any two whole numbers under 100, as well as number containing 0.5, can be done.

Numbers and holes are inscribed in the slips where threads used to go through. One would pull the threads corresponding to numbers needed to be calculated in order to see the result.

“Our guess is that the tool might be used in trade, or measurement of land in the kingdom of Chu,” postulated Professor Li. In July 2008, Tsinghua University acquired a rare collection of 2,500 slip bamboo items from the late Warring States period which had been smuggled out of China.

Apart from the multiplication table, the bamboo slips also have records of about 65 ancient texts that have been recognized to be among the most important artifacts from the Warring States Period.

“They have survived from the book burning of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, who united the country. Therefore, they have great research value,” Li said.

At the age of 84, he continues to be the protector of the bamboo slips. “There are still many slips that have not been read yet. I wish that I could read as many slips as I can to better protect them and push research ahead a step in the next decade,” he said.

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