March 1963 Popular Electronics
People old and young enjoy waxing nostalgic about and learning some of the history of early electronics. Popular
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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 company
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.
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 to left).
suc·cor noun \'sə-kər\ : something that you
do or give to help someone who is suffering or in a difficult
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
James Pastoriza and George A. Philbrick. Pastoriza Electronics
of Boston makes them.
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. 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
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 of
"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 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 machine ?"
"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
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
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
"Three minutes and forty seconds total time," the judge with
the stopwatch announced. "I guess there's no doubt about the
"Now comes the exposure!" Jerry thought as he braced himself
and looked up at Takeo; but the Japanese was smiling at him
"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
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
"I know," Jerry agreed, and then went on to admit, "I still
don't feel quite right, though, about resorting to trickery
"Neither do I," Carl confessed; "but I console myself by
thinking it could not have happened to a more deserving guy
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.
Carl & 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
- Carl & Jerry: Anchors Aweigh, July 1956
- Bosco Has His Day, August 1956
- The Hand of Selene, November 1960
- Feedback, May 1956
- Abetting or Not?, October 1956
- Electronic Beach Buggy, September
- Extra Sensory Perception, December
- Trapped in a Chimney, January 1956
- Command Performance, November 1958
- Extracurricular Education, July
- Treachery of Judas, July 1961
- 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 1963
- 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
- A Hot Idea, March 1960
- The Hot Dog Case, December 1954
- A New Company is Launched, October 1956
- Under the Mistletoe, December 1958
- Electronic Eraser, August 1962
- Blubber Banisher, July 1959
- "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