March 1963 Popular Electronics
of Contents]People old and young enjoy waxing nostalgic about and learning some of the history
of early electronics. Popular Electronics was published from October 1954 through April 1985. All copyrights (if any) 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 the
Pastoriza Personal Analog Computer, a modular electronics system
for calculating differential equations. The cost was around $300
(~$2,300 in c2014 money per
BLS Inflation Calculator). Analog Devices bought the
James 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.
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
See all articles from
Carl & Jerry: Succoring a Soroban
A Carl and Jerry Adventure
By John T. Frye W9EGV
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
"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
James Pastoriza and George A. Philbrick. Pastoriza Electronics
of Boston makes them.
"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
Get well soon, Mr. Frye
...a message from Carl &
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 certain 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 forward 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.
June 1963 Carl and Jerry story for a personal note from
"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
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
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?"
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
"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 of figures."
"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
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 cold turkey!"
"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
"Yeah; I saw it in his room yesterday. Don really makes that
"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.
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
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
"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
"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."
"Now comes the exposure!" Jerry thought as he braced himself and
looked up at Takeo; but the Japanese was smiling at him in admiration.
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 sent me."
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.
"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
"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
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 the room.
"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!"
Jerry: Their Complete Adventures is now available. "From 1954 through 1964, Popular Electronics published
119 adventures of Carl and Jerry, two teen boys with a passion for electronics and a knack for getting into and out
of trouble with haywire lashups 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."
Carl & Jerry Episodes on RF Cafe
|- Electronic Beach Buggy
- September 1956
- Extra Sensory Perception
- December 1956
- Trapped in a Chimney
- January 1956
- Command Performance
- November 1958
Education, July 1963
- Treachery of Judas,
- The Sucker, May 1963
Stereotaped New Year, January 1963
- The Snow Machine, December 1960
Extracurricular Education, July
- Slow Motion for Quick Action,
- Sonar Sleuthing, August
- TV Antennas, August 1955
Succoring a Soroban, March 1963
"All's Fair --", September 1963
Operation Worm Warming, May 1961
- The Crazy Clock Caper, October 1960
- Two Detectors, February 1955
Tussle with a Tachometer, July 1960
- Therry and the Pirates, April 1961
The Sparkling Light, May 1962
Pure Research Rewarded, June 1962
Hot Idea, March 1960
- The Hot Dog
Case, December 1954
- A New Company
is Launched, October 1956
the Mistletoe, December 1958
Eraser, August 1962
- Blubber Banisher,
- "BBI", May 1959
Ultrasonic Sound Waves, July 1955
- The River Sniffer, July 1962
Ham Radio, April 1955
El Torero Electronico, April 1960
Wired Wireless, January 1962
Electronic Shadow, September 1957
- Elementary Induction, June 1963
- He Went That-a-Way, March1959
Electronic Detective, February 1958
- Aiding an Instinct, December 1962
Posted April 29, 2014