March 1963 Popular Electronics
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
Do you know what a soroban is? I have to admit ignorance prior to reading this 1963
"Carl and Jerry" adventure in Popular Electronics. As with many of these
stories, real equipment, people, and companies were referenced; this time it was
Pastoriza Personal Analog Computer, a modular electronics system
for calculating differential equations. The cost was around $300 (~$2,700 in c2021
BLS Inflation Calculator). Analog Devices bought the company from
Pastoriza (#4 in MIT photo) in 1969. What does
the Pastoriza computer have to do with the story, you might ask? Nothing, really;
it was mentioned in a discussion Carl and Jerry had when accepting a calculating
speed challenge from obnoxious dormitory mate, Bruce. Jerry would add a series of
numbers on his soroban while Bruce would add them with a pencil and paper. The winner
got bragging rights. You'll have to read the story to discover what happens; nothing's
ever routine when Carl and Jerry scheme.
This story reminds me a bit of the challenge thrown down by Jay Leno on The Tonight
Show where he pitted a pair of Morse coders against a pair of SMSers to see who
could get a predetermined script sent and received the fastest (click thumbnail
suc·cor noun \'sə-kər\ : something that you do or
give to help someone who is suffering or in a difficult situation
Carl & Jerry: Succoring a Soroban
A Carl and Jerry Adventure
By John T. Frye W9EGV
Carl and Jerry had uninvited guests in their residence hall room at Parvoo University.
Bruce, a fat boy from across the hall, and a couple of his cronies had barged in
a half hour earlier and showed no signs of leaving. Sprawled on his back on Jerry's
bed, Bruce was holding forth:
"Sometimes I wonder if Parvoo is good enough for me. My cousin at the Case Institute
of Technology is one of two hundred students who have been issued personal portable
analog computers by the school for use in solving differential equations and other
problems in their linear systems course. The school is going to check the work of
these students against that of students using only the slide rule or making occasional
visits to the computer laboratory, to see how much of an advantage it is to have
ready access to an analog computer at all times."
"Do they issue burros to carry them ?" Carl asked sarcastically.
"No need for burros. The entire computer consists of six units, each a little
larger than a package of king-sized cigarettes, that can be connected in various
combinations with plug-in wires. There's an adder unit, two coefficients, two integrators,
and one meter control unit. The units are self-powered so that the student can use
the computer while he's parked in his car or sitting out under a tree if he wishes."
"How much do they cost?" Jerry asked.
"First cost of the six units was $300, but it's expected that manufacturing improvements
will lower this to $120. The computers were designed by Dr. James B. Reswick, Head
of the Case Engineering Design Center, and
Pastoriza and George A. Philbrick. Pastoriza Electronics of Boston makes them.
Get well soon, Mr. Frye
...a message from Carl & Jerry
Because the gentleman responsible for Carl & Jerry's electronics antics-Mr.
John T. Frye, W9EGV-is seriously ill and hospitalized, there is no Carl & Jerry
adventure this month. We're cer-tain that Carl & Jerry's many thousands of followers
join with the entire P.E. staff in wishing Mr. Frye the speediest of recoveries.
In fact, we'll be only too happy to include your "get well's" and" good wishes"
with our own and for-ward the entire lot to him. So, if you want to cheer up Mr.
Frye, address your cards and letters to John T. Frye, W9EGV, c/o POPULAR ELECTRONICS,
One Park Avenue, New York 16) N.Y. We'll take it from there.
Note: This message appeared in the
February 1963 edition of Popular Electronics, one of
the few times a Carl and Jerry article did not appear. See the
June 1963 Carl and Jerry story for a personal note from Mr. Frye.
"To use the computer, you first have to understand the physics of a system being
studied. Next, you construct a theoretical model of the behavior of the system as
expressed by an equation. The computer is then assembled so that it behaves in a
manner identical to the system. The meter control unit displays the answer on a
numbered scale and provides signals which freeze a solution at fixed time intervals,
making it possible to plot numerical units accurately on graph paper. Boy, that's
for me! The newest and consequently the best!"
"Oh, I don't know about something new always being better," Jerry remarked as
he took an object from a drawer and set it on the desk before him.
It was a rectangular frame of black-painted wood about a foot long, two and a
half inches high, and three-quarters of an inch thick. A narrow partition, or "beam,"
ran lengthwise about a half-inch down from the top. Twenty-one evenly spaced little
bamboo rods passed vertically through top, beam, and bottom. On each rod four white
plastic beads were strung between the beam and the bottom and one bead between the
beam and the top. Each rod had enough empty spaces so that anyone bead could be
moved about a quarter of an inch.
"This soroban, or modern Japanese abacus, has an ancestry reaching back more
than 2000 years," Jerry said; "yet when a contest was held in Tokyo a few years
back between a skillful soroban operator and the most expert electric calculating
machine operator to be found in Japan - he was from the disbursing department of
the U. S. Army troops there - the abacus operator was an easy victor in problems
involving addition, subtraction, division, or a combination of these operations.
Only in multiplication problems did the electric machine win, and even then the
decision was close. When you consider that this great-great-granddaddy of all computers
costs only about $3.50 and that it operates anywhere with only a tiny amount of
muscular energy, it doesn't stack up too badly against modern competition."
Bruce heaved himself up on his elbows and looked disparagingly at the soroban.
"Aw, knock it off, will you! That thing's a child's toy. The contest must have been
rigged ... Do you know how to work the gadget?" he finished, his small blue eyes
taking on a sly, calculating look.
Jerry felt an angry red spreading over his face. Bruce had that effect on people.
"I'm no expert," he retorted, "but I've noodled around enough to learn how to add
and subtract on it."
"Fine! Let's have our own contest.
I'm no whiz at ciphering, but I'll bet I can add up a long column of four-digit
numbers with a pencil and paper faster than you can on that rack of allegedly educated
wampum. You game?"
Jerry hesitated a moment and then asked: "Can we have someone
read the numbers off to us? I have to watch what I'm doing with my fingers yet."
"Sure. Tomorrow we can have someone add up several strings of numbers on an adding
machine. Tomorrow night a judge can pick three columns of numbers at random for
each of us. He can read the numbers off as fast as the person doing the adding wants.
A stopwatch will determine the total time used in adding all three columns. Okay?"
"I reckon so," Jerry said slowly. "Good," Bruce exclaimed as he struggled to
his feet. "Come on, fellows. Let's go, and let Jerry get some practice on his counter.
He'll need it."
After they had gone, Jerry and Carl stared at each other. "That was a stupid
thing to do," Carl observed. "You know you're a long way from being proficient on
that abacus. You're lucky if you get the same answer twice when you add up a column
"I know," Jerry admitted, "but something about that guy and his know-it-all attitude
goads me into accepting any challenge he throws down. It takes years of practice
to master the soroban; manipulating those beads rapidly and accurately is a highly
developed skill. The Japanese government gives examinations and issues three grades
of licenses for operating the instrument. No one starting to study the soroban after
he was out of his teens has ever been able to obtain a first-grade license. And
an average student has to practice faithfully for an hour each day for half a year
to obtain a third-grade license. I've probably played with the thing for a total
of five hours! Oh, well, maybe Bruce isn't so hot figuring with a pencil and paper."
Before Carl could reply, Fred, a friend of theirs from down the hall, stuck his
head in the door.
"Say, Jerry," Fred said hurriedly, "I just heard about the contest tomorrow night
and I thought I'd better tell you something. Bruce is a real whiz at adding figures.
He won a lot of ciphering contests back in high school. I've seen him add long columns
of four-digit figures almost as fast as he can write them down many a time. I've
got to go now, to study for an exam, but I didn't want you walking into that session
"Well, that tears it," Carl declared, after Fred had gone. You and your soroban
are going to look pretty silly tomorrow night. Bruce suckered you when he said he
wasn't good at ciphering."
"Yeah," Jerry said thoughtfully, "and that lie relieves me of any responsibility
to play this thing straight. I wonder if we could dream up some way to give the
soroban a little boost to compensate for an inept operator."
"I can't, but you look as though you could."
"Does that friend of yours in the room below us, the one whose dad is an adding
machine salesman, still have that little electric machine ?"
"Yeah; I saw it in his room yesterday. Don really makes that thing go."
"Good, good! We'll conceal a mike and amplifier here and run a couple of small
wires out our window and into his window to a speaker. Both you and he, down there
in his room, will be able to hear everything said up here. When the guy reads the
numbers off to me, Don can add them up on his machine."
"What good will that do you?" "Remember back in high school how we used to send
code to each other in study hall ?"
"Sure. We used transistorized transmitters modulated with a low-frequency tone,
and the receivers fed earphones buzzing against our skin."
"We'll do the same thing tomorrow night. You will have a phono oscillator modulated
with a keyed low-frequency tone. I'll be wearing a concealed broadcast transistorized
receiver tuned to the phono oscillator and feeding a low-impedance earphone with
the cap removed and the diaphragm taped directly against the inside of my leg. I'll
be able to feel the vibration of the diaphragm and read the coded numbers you send."
Don did not like Bruce any better than did Carl and Jerry; so he
happily agreed to take part in the plan. All arrangements were made the next day
and checked out. Jerry found that he was able to read the sample numbers Carl sent
with no trouble at all.
But when Bruce and his friends arrived that evening, Jerry's heart sank. They
had a stranger with them, a Japanese student Bruce introduced as Takeo Kojima. Takeo
had obviously been brought along to make sure there was no faking in the operation
of the soroban! But there was no time to change plans. The two boys agreed upon
as judges arrived almost immediately and announced that they were ready to start.
Bruce lost the toss of a coin and had to go first. He explained to the boy who
was to read off the numbers that he would move his left hand when he wanted another
number read. The judge started reading, the stopwatch was started, and Bruce's pencil
began darting over the paper.
There was a little space of time between the reading of each number and Bruce's
signal to continue with the next. Obviously he was adding as he went along. This
was confirmed after the reading of the fifteenth number, for he came up with the
total almost immediately. In the room below, Don, who had been writing down the
numbers for practice, nodded that the total was correct.
And it was also correct for the next two columns of numbers Bruce added up with
amazing speed. "Six minutes and five seconds total time for adding all three columns,"
announced the boy holding the stopwatch.
"Okay, Jerry," Bruce gloated. "There's something for you and your ancient computer
to shoot at. But just to make sure you don't have your desk wired for some sort
of electronic hanky-panky, suppose you move over here and use Carl's. I still think
it's funny he isn't here. Must be a mighty important engagement he has."
Jerry agreeably moved over to the other desk, and he noticed that Takeo also
changed seats, so he could watch the operation of the soroban closely. Jerry tilted
the instrument toward him to slide the bottom beads down, then laid the instrument
flat and ran a finger along the beam to raise the top row of beads. He nodded to
the judge that he was ready.
As soon as the judge finished reading one number, Jerry slapped his left hand
on the table to indicate he was ready for the next. At the same time, he kept flipping
the beads of the abacus aimlessly with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
Without looking, he could sense that Takeo was watching every move.
Suddenly the fifteenth number was given, and the judge said, "Add!" Quickly Jerry
cleared the abacus and began setting up the numbers he felt vibrating in dots and
dashes against the flesh of his leg.
"Fifty two thousand five hundred and three!" he read aloud.
"Correct," the judge answered; "go ahead with the next column."
The addition of the next two columns was a repetition of the first. Jerry left
much less time between the reading of the numbers than had Bruce, and he came up
with the total almost as quickly.
"Three minutes and forty seconds total time," the judge with the stopwatch announced.
"I guess there's no doubt about the winner."
You can't buy a soroban from the original source anymore; however,
you can still buy one on Amazon. Please click the image for more info.
"Now comes the exposure!" Jerry thought as he braced himself and looked up at
Takeo; but the Japanese was smiling at him in admiration.
"Let me congratulate you," he said, holding out his hand. "I studied the soroban
in school, and at first you puzzled me with your unorthodox manipulation of the
beads; but then I realized what you were doing: you were using mental calculation,
the method of the experts!
"You see," he explained to the others, "this is a method in which the operator
simply visualizes a soroban and mentally manipulates the beads as each number is
added. It is extremely fast because the whole operation takes place in the brain
cells. I realized that Jerry was using this method when I noticed he was actually
not recording the numbers read off on the physical soroban in front of him; yet,
when it was time for the total, he racked it up correctly on the instrument."
Why didn't you tell us you were an expert ?" Bruce demanded as he headed angrily
for the door.
"You did a little holding out yourself, didn't you ?" Jerry retorted.
Shortly after the others left, Carl and Don, grinning from ear to ear, came into
"Boy, that was close!" Carl exclaimed.
"I thought we'd had it when they introduced that Japanese fellow."
"I know," Jerry agreed, and then went on to admit, "I still don't feel quite
right, though, about resorting to trickery to win."
"Neither do I," Carl confessed; "but I console myself by thinking it could not
have happened to a more deserving guy than Bruce!"
If you're interested in getting a soroban (often called a "Japanese
abacus") like the small 13·reed one shown above, Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., Rutland,
Vt., will sell you one for $1.25. A medium-size, 15·reed unit costs $2.75, and a
large 23·reed soroban $3.25. Also available (for another $1.25) is a paperback book
titled "The Japanese Abacus - Its Use and Theory." When you order, enclose 25 cents
extra for postage for each soroban and book. And when you order, say "Carl and Jerry
Posted October 25, 2020(original 4/29/2014)
Carl Anderson and Jerry Bishop were two teenage boys whose
love of electronics, Ham radio, and all things technical afforded them ample opportunities
to satisfy their own curiosities, assist law enforcement and neighbors with solving
problems, and impressing – and sometimes toying with - friends based on their proclivity
for serious undertakings as well as fun.
Vox Electronik, September 1958
- Pi in
the Sky and Big Twist, February 1964
Bell Bull Session, December 1961
Boogie, August 1958
- TV Picture,
Electronic Eraser, August 1962
Trap, March 1956
at Work, June 1956
Aweigh, July 1956
Bosco Has His Day, August 1956
Hand of Selene, November 1960
or Not?, October 1956
Electronic Beach Buggy, September 1956
Extra Sensory Perception, December 1956
in a Chimney, January 1956
Performance, November 1958
of Judas, July 1961
- The Sucker,
New Year, January 1963
Snow Machine, December 1960
Extracurricular Education, July 1963
Slow Motion for Quick Action, April 1963
Sleuthing, August 1963
- TV Antennas,
a Soroban, March 1963
Fair --", September 1963
Worm Warming, May 1961
Santa's Little Helpers - December 1955
Two Tough Customers - June 1960
Pocket Radio, TV Receivers
Yagi Antennas, May 1955
Stomping, March 1962
Blubber Banisher, July 1959
- The Sparkling
Light, May 1962
Research Rewarded, June 1962
- A Hot Idea, March
- The Hot
Dog Case, December 1954
A New Company is Launched, October 1956
Under the Mistletoe, December 1958
Electronic Eraser, August 1962
- "BBI", May 1959
Sound Waves, July 1955
- The River
Sniffer, July 1962
- Ham Radio,
Torero Electronico, April 1960
Wireless, January 1962
Electronic Shadow, September 1957
Elementary Induction, June 1963
- He Went
Electronic Detective, February 1958
Aiding an Instinct, December 1962
- Two Detectors,
with a Tachometer, July 1960
and the Pirates, April 1961
The Crazy Clock Caper, October 1960
Carl & Jerry: Their Complete Adventures is
now available. "From 1954 through 1964, Popular Electronics published 119 adventures
of Carl Anderson and Jerry Bishop, two teen boys with a passion for electronics
and a knack for getting into and out of trouble with haywire lash-ups built in Jerry's
basement. Better still, the boys explained how it all worked, and in doing so, launched
countless young people into careers in science and technology. Now, for the first
time ever, the full run of Carl and Jerry yarns by John T. Frye are available again,
in five authorized anthologies that include the full text and all illustrations."