A story of numbers

Arabic numbers in use in a 15th-century French manuscript ( Bibliothèque Nationale de France, BNF Latin 14481) 

Imagine the things which could have been achieved if the Arabic numerals had reached Europe sooner. If instead of being developed in the 5th-6th century AD, the Hindu-Arabic number system we now call Arabic had become mainstream in antiquity.

The precursors of the Arabic numerals in Europe had been the Roman numbers, a rather simple system which the Romans had inherited from the Etruscans and upgraded for their own benefit. Thanks to Swiss watches and poor tattoos, the Roman numbers are still around us today.

Ancient and medieval European maths and science had long acknowledged the weakness of the Roman numerical system. Arithmetic was painful when done in Roman, while astronomy, chronology and other early branches of scientific thought suffered a great deal because of their reliance on Roman numerical signs. And when we think of how easy it is to mistranscribe numerals made up of Is, Vs, Cs, Ds, Ls and Ms when copying manuscripts, then the harm is compounded.

This explains how quickly Europeans were to adopt the Hindu-Arabic system. An early form of Arabic numerals reached Europe via Muslim Spain in the 11th century. By the 13th century, Arabic numbers had been comfortably used in scientific writings. By the 14th century, they fed into other types of writing, including the ‘page’ numbering of manuscripts. Towards the beginning of the 15th century, no author of sound mind would think of writing maths with Roman numerals.

Arabic numbers made maths easier. Nay, they made modern science possible.

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