Ok, so it’s a pretty bold statement to say what the first computer in the world is, many people still debate it, so I’m not even going to begin to try and convince you I have the answer but if we were to look at what defines the word ‘computer,’ it might help us out.
• an electronic device for storing and processing data, typically in binary form, according to instructions given to it in a variable program.
• a person who makes calculations, esp. with a calculating machine.
‘A person who makes calculations, esp. with a calculating machine’ is the part that interests me. So what is the earliest calculating machine? You find that and who used it and you have your first computer. This again is up for debate as to which calculating machine was first.
One of the earliest calculating machines was the Chinese ‘abacus.’ The earliest written proof of the Chinese abacus is from the 2nd Century BC. Know as the ‘suànpán’ literally meaning ‘counting tray.’ It has two decks of beads on rods (there are at least seven rods but generally more). The upper deck has two beads on its rods and the lower deck has five beads on each rod. One bead on the upper deck represents the number five and one bead on the lower deck represents the number one. The horizontal bar that separates the two decks is the where you count from. If there are no beads touching the horizontal bar then nothing is counted. Moving a bead from the lower deck to meet the horizontal bar would count one, in order to count five you move one of the beads from the upper deck to meet the horizontal bar, a number over five is a combination of beads from upper and lower deck beads.
The abacus could be seen as one of the earliest pieces of Interaction Design. Interaction design was first coined in the mid 1980’s, many, many years after the abacus. One definition of interaction design is ‘The process and result of creating an interface that facilitates users’ goals and tasks.’ This sums up the abacus, the goal or task being to calculate and the interface being the physical object itself. So even though the abacus was not made with interaction design in mind. If we look back we can clearly see that it is a good example of it.
If I were to break it down and work out why its good I would start with the beads. Having these beads/objects represent numbers makes it accessible by all. Numbers can be written and spoken differently across many languages and the abacus needed to be understood by all as traders often used it. The traders would not know every language they would encounter and so having this common language using objects made the business side of their deals that bit easier. It erased the possibility of mental error, you don’t need to hold numbers in your head because the beads are the numbers and you can move them about to suit your needs. The beads are also good because they are split into five beads of value one on one side and two beads on value five on the other. This is good interaction and informatic design. If you were to have all ten beads on one side, like the western abacus, it becomes more difficult to read a number at a glance. With the Chinese abacus however it becomes easy. Processing one bead on the upper deck to count five and then only having to glance at the bottom deck to see if any beads were being counted is easier, there are fewer beads together and so distinguishing between them becomes a simpler task. The traders needed speed when using these calculation machines and dividing the numbers up this way gave them that ability. It also has quite a beautifully simple way to ‘reset’ it, all you need to do is spin the abacus on its horizontal axis, physics takes care of the rest as all the beads fly out to the outer edges of the board thus leaving none touching the horizontal bar, making a grand total of zero, ready to begin counting again.
The abacus is still use today for counting and there are many examples of children’s toys that are some form or abacus. It is also used for teaching basic arithmetic to the blind. All of the counting and the sums can be done completely through touch, another unique interaction that the abacus has.
All of this makes it, for me, quite an inspiring piece of interaction design. Possibly the longest standing piece of interaction design too. Not only is it still around but the design has even inspired bathroom design of all things. Proving it’s a design you can count on.