We deal with numbers all the time. Not just while doing math lessons at school, but also while counting money at the shop, memorising the numbers of our favourite TV channels or even keeping tabs on the number of hours we spend in front of the Internet! But we are so used to numbers that it has never occurred to us to find out where these numbers come from.

For that, we must travel back in time. We must go back to 6th century India. It was around this time, that the great Indian astronomer Aryabhatta invented a set of numerals that is now used by people all over the world.

Where Did Numerals Originate?
Where Did Numerals Originate? [Illustration by Shiju George]
You might already have heard that zero was invented in India. But it is not so widely known that even the other numerals were invented in India only. This is because the figures written as 1, 2, 3 etc. are commonly known as ‘Arabic’.

This would naturally make it seem that the number system originated in Arabia and not in India. Sounds rather mysterious no? That something that was invented by an Indian scientist should be known as Arabic? But there’s quite an interesting story behind this.

Sometime in the year 771, Arab merchants took some Indian scholars to Baghdad (the present capital of Iraq) to help teach them the new set of numbers. After learning the numbers, the Arabs translated the numbers into their own script that is Arabic. Sometime later, the Arab traders carried a book of these numerals (in their language or script) to Europe, where the numbers were translated into Latin. As the world at large got these numbers from Arabia, these came to be known as Arabic.

In fact, it is interesting to note that there is another number system in use. This is the ‘Roman’ numerical system. The numbers in this system are written as I, II, III, IV, V etc. Although this number system is also a well-developed one, there’s one problem in it. Since there is no symbol for zero in it, there is difficulty in carrying out addition, subtraction and other calculations.

Let’s take an example. In the Arabic number system the calculation of 2076+600, can be easily computed by arranging the numbers in two vertical columns;

However, the same calculation is not so easy, when it comes to the Roman system. Why? Because under the Roman system the numbers are written differently. This is because M means a thousand, D stands for 500, C stands for a hundred, L for fifty, X for ten, V for five and I for one.

It is amazing what a big difference the seemingly simple and valueless number ‘0’ can make. The small number ‘1’ can be turned into a million! a billion!! Or even a trillion!!! – Thanks to the magical powers of zero.

old-typeset-numbers
Where did numerals originate?

Here are some more interesting facts. The script of the Arabic language (not mathematical) moves from right to left, unlike English, which moves from left to right. However, Arabic numbers are written from left to right. Why? Because they were borrowed from India!

Since the time they were invented, Arabic numerals have undergone only minor changes from the original Hindu manuscript. The numbers that have undergone slight changes include 4, 5, 6 and 7.

So that is the “number story” – how numbers were born in India, travelled to Arabia and then to Europe. And now? Well, the whole world is using them all the time. Rather interesting, no?