Early counting Devices

The art of counting dates back to the Stone Age, when early humans used various objects, such as stones, wooden sticks, and their fingers, to keep track of their possessions. The hand was a particularly convenient tool, as the fingers could be used to represent numbers in tens, and counting could be performed quickly and easily without the need for verbal communication.

The use of fingers and other body parts as a means of counting has been practised for centuries, with different cultures utilizing different methods such as one hand, two hands (decimal), and toes and fingers. Despite its simplicity, counting with fingers and similar tools had their limitations. It was not suitable for large numbers, was time-consuming, and often required a large amount of physical space. The tools commonly used for counting in the early ages included:

Fingers and Toes

This system of using fingers and toes to represent numbers was widely used throughout the Greco-Roman world and into the Middle Ages. The term “pertipathai,” meaning “to count by fives,” used in the Homeric poems, suggests that the Greeks used their fingers for counting. This method was a simple way of carrying out basic arithmetic operations, such as addition. People used their fingers and toes to keep track of trade, the number of children, and the days.

Historical Development of Computers

Stones and pebbles

When the need arose to count larger numbers, people started using stones instead of their fingers. This method involved using different coloured stones to represent different numbers. For example, one red stone could represent 100, one white stone could represent 10, and one black stone could represent 1 to 9.

Historical Development of Computers

Notch Sticks

These were used for measuring land areas and other counting and measuring needs. They were made from cane-shaped wood and had notches cut into them to represent numbers. This method, which appears to be the oldest way of representing numbers, was used by many nations, including Russia, France, Germany, England, and Scandinavia. Notch sticks consisted of two parts that were put together when marks were made on them. One part was for the debtor and the other was for the creditor. Notch sticks served as the means of the transaction instead of receipts and remittances. Estonian notch sticks were particularly unique, with their quadrangular cross-sections carefully carved from pine trees and measuring 20-50 cm long.

Historical Development of Computers


These were brightly coloured molluscs with a central tooth-like opening. They were used for transacting business, such as buying and selling, and for other counting needs.

Historical Development of Computers


An abacus is a counting device that uses beads to represent numbers. It was widely used in ancient China, and its use has spread to other parts of the world. The abacus can be compared to modern-day calculators, which perform mathematical operations electronically.

Historical Development of Computers

Tally marks

Tally marks are a simple way of counting by making a vertical stroke for each unit counted. After reaching five, a diagonal stroke is made to represent the fifth unit. This process is repeated until the required number is reached. Tally marks are similar to digital counting, where a bit is either 0 or 1.

Knotted strings

Knotted strings were used in the Inca civilization as a counting tool. Different knots and strings were used to represent different numbers. The use of knotted strings can be compared to using the ROM (Read Only Memory) in computer devices, where data is stored permanently and cannot be changed.


Scales were used to measure weight and quantity, and could also be used for counting. For instance, a trader could weigh a certain quantity of grains and then use that as a reference for counting other grains. The use of scales can be compared to using sensors and transducers in modern-day computing, where inputs are used as references for processing data.


An hourglass is a device that can be used to measure time, and it was also used for counting. For instance, a certain task could be assigned to an hourglass, and the task would be completed when the sand had run out. The use of hourglasses can be compared to using timers in computer devices, which can be used for scheduling tasks and measuring the duration of activities.

Cards and tokens

Cards and tokens have been used for counting in various cultures, and are still used today in games and gambling. The use of cards and tokens can be compared to using caches in computer devices, which are temporary storage locations for data that are frequently used.


The quipu was used by the Inca civilization as a tool for counting and record-keeping. The quipu consisted of a series of knotted strings of different colours and lengths, which were used to represent numbers and other data. The use of the quipu can be compared to using databases in computer devices, which are used to store and retrieve large amounts of data.

Historical Development of Computers

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