Arabic Numerals: Definition, History & Example

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

In this lesson you will find a brief history of how the Arabic numeral system came to its present form. The system is defined and distinguished from all other numeral systems by its specific qualities.

What Are Arabic Numerals?

They are the numbers you grew up with, the numbers you find on your computer, your phone, at the library, and for times on a movie: the innocuous numbers of 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 are Arabic numerals, as opposed to Roman numerals I, V, X, and so on. What makes the Arabic numerals neat, though, are three specific things. They have the number zero, Arabic is a base ten system, and each number has to be in a specific position to represent a specific value. The Arabic numeral system was developed over millennia and made use of contributions from the Egyptians, Indians, and Arabs.

The ancient cultures had a difficult time with zero. Beginning with Mesopotamia in the second millennium B.C.E. it was used as a placeholder, inserted into a number where no actual number (1-9) belonged. Zero wasn't treated like a real number, though, more like the absence of any numbers. It wasn't until the the Indians developed the modern symbol for zero in the second century B.C.E, a circle with empty space at its center, that zero began to serve as an independent number. Once that happened, it opened up the possibility of numbers being below zero, negative, which made possible a new field of thought.

A More Practical Base Number: Ten

There were other bases in use however. In Mesopotamia, the original system of numbers was base sixty, a sexagesimal system. The Sumerians, the first historical culture to live there, found sixty to be the perfect number for their astronomical observations because it could be easily worked with the year's 365 (simplified to 360) days, and had common numbers with the twelve constellations and the twenty-four hours they had already calculated for a day. Across the world, the Mayans would base their number system on twenty, derived from counting their fingers and toes.

However, Arabic numerals have ten basic symbols, 0-9, making it a base ten system or decimal system. Decimal systems were probably in place throughout the world as soon as there was a need to count so high, but it was the Egyptians who first used it in a written form around 3000 B.C.E. Ten, as it turned out, was a large enough number to use in higher mathematics like algebra, geometry, and calculus, but was small enough to be practical.

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