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China: Around The Nation

Scientists used abacuses to develop China’s first nuclear submarine

Sound of beads rattling on bamboo frames could be heard from dusk till dawn, says retired project chief

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 July, 2017, 4:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 July, 2017, 4:17pm

China’s first nuclear submarine was developed with the aid of an abacus, according to the scientist who led the project in the late 1950s.

Now 93, Huang Xuhua, chief designer of the Long March-1, said he still owns one of the suanpan [abacuses] that were used by his team almost 60 years ago, Chutian Metropolis Daily reported on Monday.

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“Lots of critical data used in the development of the nuclear submarine jumped out from this suanpan,” he was quoted as saying.

Often referred to as the “Father of China’s nuclear subs”, Huang worked for China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, which had several abacus calculation teams divided into specialist sections, he said.

Scientists “attacked the beads [on their abacuses] until every section reached the same result”, he said, adding that the constant clattering was enough to make entire buildings “rattle from dawn until dusk”.

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The Chinese abacus dates back to about 200BC. Traditional designs featured a bamboo frame with beads that could be pushed up or down. Even today, skilled users can perform mathematical calculations on them as quickly as they can on a calculator.

Zhang Jinlan, one of the experts currently working on nuclear submarines at China Shipbuilding Industry Corp, said that for designers working today, trying to build a vessel using an abacus would be a “mission impossible”, the report said.

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“This is not simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, but involves algorithms and models with sophisticated mathematical language, such as trigonometric functions and logarithms,” he was quoted as saying.

Huang, however, said that by doing the calculations by hand he and his fellow scientists were able to overcome many challenging technical issues. Such was their success that they came up with five original designs in a period of just three months, the report said.

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The first Long March-1 was completed in 1970 and went into military service four years later. It was retired last year and is now on exhibition at a naval museum in Qingdao, eastern China’s Shandong province.