Who Invented Numbers?

No one knows! Yes, no one knows by whom the numbers were invented! Historians tell us that the earliest evidence of counting dates back to 35, 000 BC. Some bones of that era have been found with ‘marks’ on them, which are being speculated as ‘tally marks’. There are various theories to explain what was being counted – the days, men, animals…?

The Mesopotamians were the first to use place value system – this allowed them to operate on big numbers. It had 60 as a base and the system was in use around 3400 BC. The Egyptians also developed a similar system with base 10 around 3100 BC. (The current system is base 10 system).

The Greeks, after watching and learning from the Egyptians, used a similar number system. The number system used by the Greeks neither had a zero nor a decimal. Although the Greeks developed important theorems in trigonometry, they weren’t quite as efficient at algebra. Their number system was making things cumbersome.

The Indian mathematicians, upon realizing the problem, invented both zero and a new number system with decimals. The Arabs, on finding that it was superior to the inefficient Greek system, borrowed it and improved on it. The Europeans learnt the new number system from the Arabs and that is why the current numbers are called the Arabic numerals.

The invention of zero and negative numbers raised a lot of philosophical questions. Some argued how one could have -3 sheep! It doesn’t make sense. The problems were being sorted out one by one. For example, in the above mentioned case, the response was – one could have a bank balance with negative sign against it and it perfectly makes sense.

The concept got enlarged with time. Soon rational numbers, real numbers and imaginary numbers were found. Imaginary numbers are a relatively recent invention and they were invented in the 16th when the mathematicians were trying to work out some equations. W. R. Hamilton is usually credited with the invention of complex numbers.

Category: Inventions

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