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
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 from
(#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 to left).
noun \'sə-kər\ : something that you do or give to help someone who is suffering or in a difficult
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 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."
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
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 the best!"
Get well soon, Mr. Frye
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 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 Mr. Frye.
"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?"
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 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 and paper."
Before Carl could reply, Fred, a friend of theirs from down the hall, stuck his head in the
"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 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.
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
"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."
"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 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 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
|- Trapped in a Chimney - January
- Command Performance - November
- Extracurricular Education,
- Treachery of Judas,
- The Sucker, May 1963
Stereotaped New Year, January 1963
- The Snow
Extracurricular Education, July 1963
He Went That-a-Way,
Electronic Detective, February 1958
- Aiding an
Instinct, December 1962
- Succoring a
Soroban, March 1963
- Slow Motion
for Quick Action, April 1963
Sonar Sleuthing, August
- TV Antennas,
- The Hot Dog
Case, December 1954
A New Company is Launched,
the Mistletoe, December 1958
|- "All's Fair --", September 1963
- Operation Worm Warming, May
- The Crazy Clock Caper, October
- Two Detectors,
Tussle with a Tachometer, July 1960
- Therry and the
Pirates, April 1961
- The Sparkling
Research Rewarded, June 1962
Hot Idea, March 1960
Eraser, August 1962
- "BBI", May 1959
Ultrasonic Sound Waves, July 1955
- The River Sniffer,
- Ham Radio, April
- El Torero Electronico,
- Wired Wireless,
Shadow, September 1957
Posted April 29, 2014